Facing a shortage of school bus drivers on Maui, state education officials say the company that operates many of the island’s routes is working on a fix: bringing drivers in from Oahu.
Oahu-based Ground Transport Inc., which won the Department of Education contract last December to operate some bus routes in Maui, is short 17 drivers. The shortage has affected an estimated 683 students on the island, prompting the DOE to consolidate bus routes in a situation that has left students waiting for their rides to school up to an hour or more longer than they normally would.
“Ground Transport is flying drivers to Maui to assist,” state DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said Wednesday in an email.
The result of the shortage, say some Maui principals, is that parents are trying to find alternative means to get their kids to school. The schools also need to arrange for late breakfast pick-ups for students or find teachers willing to open up their classrooms to accommodate students arriving earlier in the day.
“My constituents, rightfully so, are freaking out,” said Rep. Angus McKelvey, whose district is on Maui.
“They live in a cul-de-sac with limited transportation options already,” he said. “They’re relying on the school bus system to get their kids to school. We have many parents who don’t have the ability to rent a car. The bus is the only way.”
The school bus driver shortage is affecting Kauai as well. The island’s two bus operators, Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Bus Service, are short a combined eight drivers, which is affecting an estimated 300 students, according to the DOE.
“I see kids out later, standing, waiting for the bus,” said Rep. Dee Morikawa of Kauai. “Usually, when I take my little one to school, there’s no one standing on the road. This morning I noticed they’re waiting at all the bus stops at 7:25.”
Some lawmakers say they are frustrated DOE informed parents of the pending driver shortage just days before the new school year kicked off this week.
Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff, issued a statement Wednesday saying he “recognizes the hardship caused by the school bus crisis on Maui.”
“We have reached out to Department of Education officials who assure us that they are doing all they can to remedy this urgent situation. We thank our students and families on Maui for their patience as the DOE works with the contractor to provide the best transportation services possible.”
Meanwhile, new schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE is “meeting with Ground Transport on their action plan towards a solution.”
“We apologize to the families on Maui who are affected by the shortage of routes at the start of the new school year,” she said in a statement. “Getting our students who depend on bus transportation to schools is a high priority for us.”
Last week, the DOE issued a series of alerts informing parents that due to an “unexpected crisis” brought on by the driver shortage, the department was “taking drastic measures” such as combining bus routes and distributing free county bus passes to affected students in Maui.
But those 250 Maui County bus passes, which cost $30 apiece, won’t be used for now. Chambers said in an email that the distribution of passes has been “halted due to a shortage of space on county buses.”
Last Friday, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa discouraged the DOE from using the bus passes, according to Maui County spokesman Rod Antone.
“He didn’t want kids to be left at the bus stops stranded in the morning. The Maui bus system is already at capacity in the morning with passengers trying to get to work,” Antone said.
Lynn Kahoohalahala, principal of Maui’s Lahainaluna High School, said the first day back for the entire study body Wednesday went “pretty well” in light of the school bus driver shortage.
“We were proactive upfront, so we have alternative, additional parking spaces for additional drivers. Flow of traffic went well,” with a local police officer stationed near the school entrance, she said.
Ground Transport, formed in 1990 by Louis Gomes, has operated school buses on Oahu. Last year, it won the bid to take over many Maui school bus routes from Roberts Hawaii, a dominant player in the school bus industry here.
Gomes did not respond to multiple calls and emails left with the company.
Their contract is for a seven-year term with a three-year renewal period.
Roberts challenged the Ground Transport’s bid in court, but lost.
Percy Higashi, president and chief operating officer of Roberts, told Civil Beat earlier this week that he felt Roberts’ qualifications were “above that of Ground’s,” since they already had infrastructure in place in Maui such a facilities, vehicles and drivers.
Roberts continues to operate about a third of school bus routes on Maui, and operates more than half the bus routes on Oahu.
Rep. Justin Woodson, who chairs the House Education Committee, says DOE and Ground Transport are trying to find solutions.
“As far as I’ve been told, Ground Transport has excess drivers who are able to fly over and be of service in Maui, if they’re able and willing,” he said. “This is a very unique circumstance and there are just no good answers. It’s very frustrating because the kids are suffering.”
Randy Moore, a retired state assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, said recruiting drivers isn’t easy.
“School bus drivers need a commercial drivers license with passenger and school endorsements,” he said. “The job is not particularly attractive, because most drivers have a split shift — home-to-school in the morning and school-to-home in the afternoon.”
But McKelvey, the West Maui lawmaker, called the situation “completely unacceptable” in a Wednesday press release.
He also questioned whether the agency did its due diligence after awarding the contract to see whether Ground Transport could meet all the requirements.
“The lack of qualified drivers for certain routes should also have been disclosed during the procurement process,” his release stated. “Especially when it is a new Oahu-based vendor that has never provided any transportation for the schools in Maui before.”
On its website, Ground Transport said it was offering hiring bonuses of $500 to $2,000 for drivers with qualified commercial licenses. It pays school bus drivers $24 an hour.