Howard superintendent says canceled bus routes will be restored next week; 70 out-of-state drivers flown in

Aug. 30—The 54 bus routes canceled this week by contractor Zum Services should be restored by the end of next week, Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said Wednesday.

Meanwhile Zum spokesperson Jenny Mayfield said school bus driver shortages were caused by difficulties the California-based company had with the state certification process. The company is continuing to recruit, train and certify new drivers every day, Mayfield said, and has brought in "fully trained and certified drivers from other Zum locations to provide temporary coverage."

Martirano said Wednesday that nearly 70 Zum bus drivers were flown in from Seattle and Spokane, Washington, to address the shortage.

"We thought they were going to be individuals who would provide service if bus drivers didn't show up," he said. "We've now had to use them."

The canceled routes are supposed to provide rides for more than 2,400 students at 34 elementary, middle and high schools, but parents have been forced to make alternate plans for children since Tuesday, the second day of school.

Martirano identified several "avoidable errors" that have occurred this week, such as ineffective communication with schools and families, inadequate preemptive troubleshooting, bus numbers that did not match what was provided to families and numerous errors regarding data, technology and routing.

"This was a system failure," Martirano said, "and we are laser focused to make sure we get this right."

Martirano said he was encouraged by some positive changes on the third day of school, Wednesday.

"Only about a quarter of our buses arrived late (Wednesday) morning, compared to most of our buses arriving late to their school on Monday," Martirano said during a Wednesday news conference. "I am encouraged by this positive shift and must acknowledge that the first two weeks of the school year does bring evergreen challenges as drivers adjust to their new routes and traffic patterns.

"Many of our families and students are upset, angry and frustrated, and rightfully so. I share in your frustration and anger because quite frankly, I know we can do better — and we will."

The school system has agreements with 21 bus contractors to provide service on 503 routes this fall. Zum Services had 230 routes before the cancellations; Tip Top Transportation, based in Elkridge, has 58. The 19 other contractors based in the region split the remaining 215 routes.

In an Aug. 10 memo, Martirano stated that of the 230 drivers that Zum needs to cover its routes, 130 had been hired and 71 certified drivers were going through the company's onboarding process. At that time, he believed as many as 66 noncertified drivers should have been able to complete commercial driver's license certification in time for the school year.

Martirano said Wednesday that he plans to conduct a thorough audit of the HCPSS student transportation office. For now, the school system is attempting to remedy transportation problems by providing drivers with access to paper and electronic route guidance, and having an HCPSS staff member track and report bus arrivals and departures at each school.

Routes that provide transportation for special education, dual enrollment and career academy students will be supported by real-time troubleshooting and deployment of resources, he added. HCPSS is legally required to provide special education students with the transportation specified in their individualized education plan.

Martirano said that area transportation managers will now meet twice daily with community superintendents, and a communications office staff member will be assigned to support transportation communications each day. Additionally, former Director of Transportation David Ramsay has been called upon to assist in operations, Martirano said.

The superintendent also will meet with Zum's top leaders in person next week, "to ensure that all points of failure on their end have been addressed," he said.

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"I am extremely disappointed that there were errors that could have been mitigated and were not," he said.

Zum informed HCPSS that it would provide a $500 weekly bonus to drivers who go a month without an absence and an $8,000 CDL certification completion incentive, Martirano said.

Zum's Mayfield issued a company statement apologizing for the transportation issues.

"Getting students to and from school safely and reliably is our priority and we apologize to the families and students who have been impacted this week," theZum company statement read. "We are working around the clock with the district to ensure that all students have access to transportation services."

Despite setbacks, 95% of students attended classes on Monday and Howard's attendance rate was 96% on Tuesday, Martirano said, which is above last year's annual average of 93.5%. HCPSS did not release the student tardiness rate for the first two days of school this year. Absences will be excused and students who have missed classes due to transportation issues will be provided with alternative learning assignments, he said.