Frustrated Roanoke parents criticized the school system’s new busing contractor Tuesday for problems that have persisted since the first day of school.
The Roanoke School Board heard complaints from four speakers concerned about long delays and poor communication from Durham School Services. Some board members voiced frustration of their own and urged the company to act.
Durham vice president John Ziegler vowed to improve in a presentation to the board. “I want to apologize to everybody,” Ziegler said. “We have delivered less than perfect service. … I will and we will fix it and make it right.”
Durham is in the first year of a five year contract as Roanoke City Public Schools’ transportation contractor after replacing the former contractor, Mountain Valley Transportation.
In some cases, Durham’s struggle with punctuality has improved. But the delays have continued into the fourth week of school.
The company cited a shortage of drivers as the main cause of the delays. Ziegler said the company still needs at least 10 more drivers. Five trainees should be certified within the next six days, he said.
Parent Heather Lawson told the board she started a petition urging Roanoke to stop outsourcing certain services, such as transportation. The school system has outsourced transportation since 2009.
Lawson said her family has not experienced delays this school year but did in recent years when Mountain Valley managed transportation. Bus drivers play a vital role in the community, she said, and they deserve to be paid fairly with fair benefits directly by the school system.
Katrina Wood, a mom of a Fairview Elementary student, sought answers.
“We’ve got to do better. We really need to do better. I’m asking you to please come up with something,” she said.
Wood said the company’s drivers deserved better compensation and benefits. She also questioned why the school system chose Durham despite past incidents involving the company, including a fatal crash involving a Durham School Service bus driver in 2016. Six children died and others were injured when a Durham bus driver crashed in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Wood said she is familiar with the tragedy because her mother lives in the Chattanooga neighborhood where it happened.
The driver, Johnthony Walker, was convicted in 2018 of criminally negligent homicide in the crash, according to area news outlets. Following the crash, Durham executives vowed to improve the company’s safety policies and technology.
School Board Chairman Mark Cathey told The Roanoke Times the board was aware of an incident involving Durham before approving the contract in April and took it into consideration.
“We didn’t go into it not knowing that everything wasn’t perfect,” Cathey said.
During the meeting, Cathey apologized about transportation problems to the community on behalf of the board. “The buck stops with us, and we get that. We’re working with the administration at Durham to make this right,” Cathey said.
Ziegler said Durham is working hard to fill vacancies. Starting pay is $17 per hour, Ziegler said, and all former Mountain Valley Transportation employees hired received a $1 hourly raise. The company offers some benefits such as limited health care, paid holidays and 401(k) matching, he added.
School board member Laura Rottenborn said her child recently arrived home late on the school bus.
“I was not notified. I personally called Durham to find out where my child’s bus was, and it took 30 minutes. That is unacceptable,” Rottenborn said. “I want an active, intelligent plan so that we can communicate with parents so they’re not wondering where their kid is.”
Vice Chairwoman Lutheria Smith said the company must be “critically focused” on improving.
Deputy Superintendent Dan Lyons filled in during the meeting for Superintendent Rita Bishop, who is recovering from a leg fracture.
Lyons said the school system will continue to work with Durham to improve.