Many Roanoke students arrived more than an hour after the morning bell rang on the first day of school, but it wasn’t their fault.
On day two, the buses ran late again.
Roanoke City Public Schools’ new transportation provider, Durham School Services, has struggled to get students to and from school on time since the first day of school Tuesday.
In some cases, students were returned home an hour and a half late. Principals had to hold some students in their homerooms longer than planned in the mornings to wait for buses to arrive. Cafeterias stayed open longer to let students eat breakfast.
Parents and guardians have voiced frustration with the delays and difficulty connecting with Durham representatives by phone to try to locate their children. Durham didn’t have enough phone lines to handle the call volume.
Karen Blanchard, mother of two Highland Park Elementary students, said she drove her sons to school Tuesday morning after waiting with them at the bus stop for 35 minutes.
The boys weren’t dropped off in the afternoon until 4:45 p.m., two hours after elementary schools are dismissed, according to Blanchard.
Before the bus arrived, Blanchard said she and other parents waited at the bus stop and grew increasingly worried. No one was returning phone calls to locate the bus’ location, Blanchard said.
“I was verging on panic at this point. Moms tend to go that route. I started seeing all of these terrible headlines in my head. I thought, ‘school bus flips over,’ or ‘school bus hijacked,’ ” Blanchard said. “Our thought process was forced to go there.”
On Wednesday morning, Blanchard said Durham called to let her know her sons’ bus wouldn’t arrive until after 8 a.m., more than an hour late. She again opted to drive them.
Blanchard said she and other parents experienced similar problems in the past when the school system had its previous bus contractor, Mountain Valley Transportation.
On Wednesday afternoon, Roanoke and Durham representatives were apologetic about the delays and pledged to improve their pickup and drop-off times. The school system also issued a recorded phone call around 1 p.m. to parents to apologize, but said they anticipated more delays after school.
Deputy Superintendent Dan Lyons and Durham Vice President John Ziegler held a news conference at Roanoke’s central office.
Ziegler said Durham is working to improve its routes and communication amid a staffing shortage. The company has only hired about 90% of the drivers it needs. Ziegler said he didn’t know how many of Durham’s employees previously worked for Mountain Valley Transportation, Roanoke’s previous transportation provider, though Durham offered employment to all Mountain Valley drivers.
Other school systems in the region are also dealing with a shortage in bus drivers, with some pointing to the low unemployment rate as a factor.
The lack of drivers is contributing to the delays, Ziegler said, as some buses must take on more routes.
To help communicate with parents and guardians, Roanoke added phone lines at its central office. School employees will begin taking calls on those phones if Durham can’t handle the volume at its office in Roanoke. Durham’s phone number is (540) 970-3000. The school board office is at (540) 853-2382.
Lyons said the school system has “all the confidence in the world” in Durham. He said some of the delays are attributed to safety protocols or issues like address changes. But errors were made and Roanoke owns those errors, Lyons said.
Roanoke switched transportation providers in April, ending a 10-year business relationship with Mountain Valley Transportation. School board members agreed to a five-year contract with Durham after receiving four bids from private sector companies. This school year, Roanoke will pay Durham $8.6 million, plus about $600,000 in startup costs.
Mountain Valley provided transportation for the school system through the end of the school year and part of July, when students attended summer programming.
Officials said they appreciated Mountain Valley’s service but felt Durham could provide better service. Durham’s proposal is also expected to cost about $1 million less annually.
The school system began outsourcing transportation services in 2009 with the hope of cutting costs on bus maintenance and personnel. Roanoke maintains its bus station, but the contractor owns the buses.
Durham serves more than 400 school districts in 31 states across the United States. Its parent company, National Express LLC, is the North American subsidiary of National Express Group PLC.
Lyons asked the community for patience, but acknowledged delays could continue in the short term.
“If we’re having this problem, let’s say, in a week, I’ll have some real concerns if we don’t see improvement. I’m confident we will see improvement,” Lyons said.