Roanoke School Board Vice Chairwoman Lutheria Smith told a Durham School Services executive Tuesday the company must do more to address transportation issues in Roanoke immediately.
“The last time you talked to us, you said ‘I’m going to look into this. I’m going to look into that.’ We’re hearing the same response about the same issues,” Smith told Durham Vice President John Ziegler. “ We don’t want to have this meeting again, and have as many issues as we’re facing. I just don’t think that’s acceptable, and I’m certain you don’t think it’s acceptable. You can’t run a business that way.”
Smith urged Durham to improve after five parents and a company employee aired more concerns about Roanoke City Public Schools’ transportation problems. Durham has struggled with late buses and complaints about communication since the first day of school in August. The company is citing a driver shortage as the main cause of delays.
Rhonda Johnson, a mother of a William Fleming High student, told the Roanoke School Board her son has waited as long as an hour for a bus at times.
Some of the other parents who spoke said they’re concerned about the well-being of employees in addition to late buses and the school system’s continued use of outsourcing.
A Durham bus aide, Anntwine Lee, said her concern is for the drivers. They’re doing the best they can, despite running extra routes to cover for the shortage, Lee said.
“It’s not the drivers’ fault. When you have to do runs that are doubled or tripled, that shows they care,” Lee said. “My coworkers are good individuals. They care about every child that they haul. It seems like there’s no support for my coworkers.”
When Ziegler addressed the school board, he said he wanted to echo Lee’s sentiment.
“We have a great group of employees — drivers, aides, mechanics — staff gives over 110% every day,” Ziegler said.
The vice president provided an update on the company’s driver shortage and recruitment efforts. Durham needs to hire 10 drivers to reach 100% staffing levels, but at least 20 more to ensure routes are consistently covered, Ziegler said. The company has reported a driver shortage in the same range since the first day of school.
Smith and other board members questioned Ziegler on the company’s strategies for improvement for about 20 minutes. Two board members — Laura Rottenborn and Dick Willis — were absent from the meeting.
Board Chairman Mark Cathey and member Eli Jamison asked how Durham is addressing communication complaints. Ziegler said the company has about five employees answering calls, and is working with the school system to send more recorded phone calls to notify of late buses in a more timely way.
The company hopes to launch a mobile bus tracking app by Oct. 14 that will allow parents and guardians to pinpoint their child’s location, Ziegler said.
Durham said it hopes its newest recruitment efforts, including bonuses, will help the company fill its vacancies, Ziegler said. The company also has several employees in training, he added.
Smith asked Ziegler when the board should expect full driver staffing.
Based on current projections, Ziegler said, the company hopes to have enough drivers by mid-November.
Ziegler said he accepts blame for the company’s problems in its first year as Roanoke’s transportation provider, and vowed to continue searching for solutions.