In Prince George’s, crowded school buses and erratic schedules

September 29, 2011

Seventh-grader Asiah Jett’s school bus at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie is so packed that the driver transports students in waves. On some days, Asiah gets home at 3:40 p.m. On others, 4:10.

Trouble is, his mother never knows which days are which.

“It’s been a little stressful,” said Asiah’s mother, Jasmine Jett. “Things are getting better, but the bus this year has definitely been frustrating.”

A pileup of struggles has led to erratic bus service for some Prince George’s County schools, a difficulty echoed around the country as school systems confront a double whammy of budget cuts and staff shortages.

“The perfect storm,” said Michael Dodson, the county schools’ transportation director. Now Dodson is scrambling to adjust the Washington region’s most extensive school transportation operation, which ferries 84,000 students each day with 48 fewer buses and about 100 fewer drivers than in the previous school year.

Throughout the county, Dodson acknowledged, drivers have sometimes been late and occasionally missed stops entirely. Random buses from other routes have picked up stranded students. And in at least one incident, a bus became so full that children were forced to stand.

“We don’t condone it, and we’re working as fast as we can to fix it,” Dodson said. “We just found ourselves in a really tough situation. We’re operating in a mode to make sure every child gets picked up from school.”

It wasn’t until July 1 that school officials realized that an unusually large number of bus drivers would retire this year, Dodson said, including 38 who opted for an early retirement package to help reduce expenses.

The system has lost drivers at a faster rate than it has been able to replace them, Dodson said. There is always a demand for the job, which starts at $16.68 an hour. But few people meet strict local and federal requirements to be entrusted with transporting dozens of schoolchildren — an untarnished driving record being chief among them.

Complicating matters is that driving a bus is not as lucrative as it once was, according to Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. More systems are reducing bus drivers from full-time to part-time positions or freezing salaries because of dwindling budgets and rising fuel costs.

Bus problems have arisen from the D.C. suburbs to rural areas of New York, Martin said. “We’ve always had difficulties finding qualified bus drivers,” he said. “But in places, especially districts that have been cutting, we are seeing more crowded buses and new ideas to deal with those needs.”

A task force is set to release recommendations in November on creating a more efficient student transportation system in Prince George’s.

Ideas being tossed around include the creation of bus hubs where parents can drop off their children, consolidating more bus routes and using public bus systems.

On more than 5,000 routes, Prince George’s school buses travel 20 million miles each year on 3 million gallons of fuel. That’s more mileage than in Fairfax County, the region’s biggest school system, where buses cover 17 million miles each year, and in Montgomery, where buses last year logged almost 19 million.

Transportation costs in Prince George’s this year will amount to $94 million, or 6 percent of the system’s $1.6 billion budget. Some on the school board want to pare such costs. The board cut funding for bus service to a program in which high school students take classes at Prince George’s Community College. The board also has debated whether to end busing for magnet programs.

Board Chairwoman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said the county must rethink its assumptions about school bus service.

“The current system is not sustainable,” Jacobs said. “We need to gear our minds into believing that we are becoming a more urban area and start thinking of alternatives. I think an ideal situation would be to have our public transportation system work with our school system.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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