UPPER MARLBORO – Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has fielded numerous transportation complaints since the beginning of the year, but, with 10 percent of the school system’s drivers absent on any given day, PGCPS is struggling to get transportation running smoothly.
Reports of late busses, busses that never show up and of school children dropped off without parents present have popped up numerous times over the first few months of school, but PGCPS wants parents and residents to know they are working on the issues. However, it may take time to find permanent solutions.
The PGCPS transportation office gave a presentation at a Prince George’s County Board of Education work session last week, where the staffers updated the board on progress made with the office and the hardships it has faced in the first few months of the 2016-17 school year.
“We specifically requested, given a lot of what we heard, and we’ve had some work on transportation. So, since the board has gotten so many (complaints), and since many of us have heard from our constituents about transportation concerns, we wanted to do a follow-up,” Segun Eubanks, chair of the board of education, said.
PGCPS Chief Operating Officer Wesley Watts said the school system has dealt with a number of issues in regards to student transportation over the past several months.
“Our biggest issues, basically, (are) the late busses and busses that are not showing up, or they’re showing up so late people think that they’re not showing up,” Watts said.
One main contributor to late busses and missed stops is a combination of vacant positions and an alarming absentee rate. Lori Cater-Evans, the director of the transportation office, said PGCPS had 48 bus driver vacancies in August and although that number dropped to 11 vacancies at the end of September, Carter-Evans said there are still 31 drivers on extended leave.
The school system’s human resources department is working on filling those vacancies, though. Over the course of the past year, Carter-Evans said the school system has held a number of bus driver fairs and asked retired bus drivers to come back to the system.
However, filling all those positions takes time. Training can take anywhere from two to six weeks depending on how much experience a recruited person has. For someone who has driven a bus for a school system before and already has his or her license, all that is needed is a refresher course. But for those who walk into an interview without experience or a license, the process could take longer, especially if they need to get their license to drive a bus.
“We currently have 14 drivers in training and in our next class we have 18,” Carter-Evans said.
PGCPS transportation is also dealing with a 10 percent daily absentee rate, meaning on any given day approximately 10 percent of the bus fleet call in sick or have taken personal leave.
The school system currently has more than 1,070 bus routes to get students to and from school and approximately 1,097 drivers. With approximately 100 drivers missing on any given day and a short list of substitutes, the transportation office has to make quick decisions to be sure routes are covered.
According to data provided by the school system, over the past two months the number of drivers absent on a given day has topped 100. On Sept. 16, a Friday, 133 drivers were absent and Carter-Evans said she sees a trend of high absenteeism on Thursdays and Fridays.
“It is important to note that in the beginning of the school year, we do not have our non-public schools operating, not all of them. So the drivers who are assigned to transport our students with special needs to non-public schools were available to help provide service the first week of school,” Carter-Evans said. “So in addition to not as many, we don’t have the 97 drivers off on that first week.”
Watts and Carter-Evans said they are working on ways to improve retention of their drivers to avoid so many vacancies, but said they are also working on ways to incentivize good attendance – a suggestion made by multiple board of education members during the work session.
Carter-Evans said PGCPS is looking at a number of solutions to address other transportation issues as well and is considering hiring for a position directly in charge of hiring for transportation only.
Another large complaint lodged toward the transportation office is its perceived lack of communication. According to PGCPS data, the transportation office received nearly 11,000 phone calls in the first week of school. Of those only 2,000 were answered.
“That left us with 81 percent of our customers frustrated after waiting on the line,” Carter-Evans said.
The school does have a phone bank and temporary employees were hired to handle the large amount of calls in the first week, but PGCPS has had to ask those temporary workers to come back to help increase the number of answered calls and resolved issues.
PGCPS is also working on launching a text service to inform parents on where their child’s bus is at a given time, if there are any major delays and other transportation-related information.
Carter-Evan expects that service to be available by February 2017.
“We’re also investigating ways to push the transportation information to the student portal. Parents would get transportation information and related updates that apply specifically to their child and their child’s bus route,” Carter-Evans said. “So the communication will be in real time.”
Watts said he isn’t sure when that specific service will be available to parents, though. Putting transportation on the School Max site will be possible, thanks to an update in the transportation office’s data system. Still, it will require creating a new section of the web page.
“The portal has to be built. The portal does not have a transportation page. It will have to be built by staff,” Watts said.
Watts said PGCPS is still in the beginning phases of creating the new transportation portal and is currently looking at how much the programming and design would cost.