TENNERTON – Now that their staffing level has stabilized, Upshur County School system bus operators say they’re not being scheduled to transport students to and from extracurricular activities on weekends and holidays – even when they’re available to work.
As a result, students are relying on self-transport, meaning parents, friends or other individuals are driving students to such events.
The operators told the board of education at its Tuesday meeting that self-transport is much riskier for students than scheduling bus drivers.
During the public comments/delegation portion of the meeting, members of the transportation department gathered to brief BOE members on the issue.
The first speaker was Brenda Hyre, a bus driver for Upshur County Schools, the building representative for the Upshur County Schools Bus Garage and vice president for the Upshur County chapter of the West Virginia Schools Service Personnel Association.
“We are here to discuss some things that have come up at the bus garage,” Hyre said. “We want you to be aware of what is going on. We do appreciate everything we have discussed with Dr. Stankus and Dr. Harrison about getting subs into our system, and for you all approving that. There are several other items we want to bring to your attention.”
Hyre explained their concerns stem from issues associated with curricular and extracurricular trips.
Then, Hyre turned the floor over to Chase Woody, another bus operator in Upshur County.
“There has been an ongoing concern with our current Policy 9004,” Woody said. “We have been having some issues with vague language and there are issues with trips that are not getting scheduled and not getting down to us at the bus garage, and it brings up safety concerns.”
Woody said there have been numerous trips going out on holidays and Saturdays when there are many drivers available; however, those bus drivers aren’t being utilized.
“But these trips have been self-transport,” Woody said. “We are bringing up concerns. There are numerous statistics stating that school buses are the safest form of transport. I speak for everyone at the bus garage when I say we are all concerned about this.”
Self-transport means students are responsible for security their own rides to the events or activities.
Woody handed out a packet to board members, which he said outlined the many safety features of the buses as well as the training bus operators must complete.
“We put a lot of time and effort into our county drivers,” he emphasized. “We are highly trained. We went through the state certification process and CDL training. We are First Aid-certified and have completed background checks and random drug tests. We are some of the better ones on the road and our concern is, when we start allowing parent transports, we cannot guarantee these drivers are not under the influence. We do not know their driving records.”
Woody said not calling bus operators to work extracurricular events unfairly discriminates against students whose parents might not be capable of transporting them.
“I have had parents who had kids in sports last year that are not in sports this year because they cannot provide transportation for their kids,” he said. “They cannot afford it, and they are not comfortable with allowing other parents to do it. I understand that is their right, but I don’t think it is fair that we are constantly requiring self-transport of these kids when we have buses available.”
Woody said the hiring of three new substitute bus operators in the county has fixed most of the problems with having enough operators.
“We are covering the daily runs,” Woody said. “In the provision policy, we left the parent transport option because we knew that we could not guarantee a bus would be available all the time.
“But we are requesting the BOE form a committee, review this and add any comments to strengthen the language that if a bus is available, [students must take it],” he added.
Board president Dr. Tammy Samples said the change in policy – which made the self-transport option more readily available – was effected when there was a period of weeks wherein no buses/bus operators were available to make either curricular or extracurricular trips.
“This [policy change] was made when we could not get a bus for weeks,” Sample said. “That is why the change was made – not to keep somebody from going somewhere but because we could not get buses for this trip.”
Woody agreed with Samples, saying it was the right move at the time.
“We need to be able to give the parents permission to self-transport,” he said, “but what we are requesting is, if there is a bus available …. that we use that option over everything else.”
Woody explained the top priority is getting students to and from school and said the only time they have trouble finding extracurricular drivers is when illness spreads through the bus garage or when there’s a shortage of drivers – which happened earlier this school year.
Woody went on to say parents are texting and calling bus drivers, frustrated that the county isn’t scheduling buses for extracurricular, weekend or holiday trips.
Hyre said there’s no reason why drivers aren’t being scheduled for trips on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays.
“These bus drivers are available on weekends and holidays for these trips,” Hyre said. “The thing of it is, these trips are not getting called into the bus garage and if they are, they are getting canceled out and two weeks ahead of time, people are telling the parents the trip has to be parent-transport.”
Samples said she receives lots of negative comments when people go to an athletic event and see five students get off a school bus.
“People are saying I am not being fiscally responsible as a board member for sending a whole bus for five students. So that is also in the community. Trust me – it gets said to me a lot,” she said. “We have to think about that, too. I am just putting that out there. I want our kids to be safe. Safety is our number one priority always, but that is what people say to me in public.”
Woody countered, “My argument … would be that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that students that are transported back and forth to events are 70 times more likely to arrive safely on a school bus rather than a van or personal vehicle,” Woody said. “Less than 1 percent of student deaths and injuries occur on school buses.”
Woody said when one looks at passenger vans and personal vehicles, school buses get much better gas mileage.
“Really you are looking at taking much higher safety risks for not much benefit. I think it is unfair of the board to push that gas expense onto the parents because that is really what we are doing,” Woody said. “We are saying we don’t want to pay for the fuel. We don’t want to pay for the drivers, so we are going to require a parent to take off work or miss a day of work …”
“That was never what any of that was about,” Samples interjected. “Please do not use that as an example because that is not accurate.”
Woody went on to say he was simply giving a voice to parent concerns that had been expressed to him.
“I am just voicing what I am hearing from the public also,” he told Sample. “I want us to work as a group to send the best message to the public as possible.”
“Certainly,” Samples agreed.
Samples said in order to change a policy, a committee must be formed. She said whatever is proposed is required to be read at board meetings three distinct times, and public comments must be accepted.
“I am certain we can form a committee and begin conversation about this,” Samples said. “We certainly want to work with you, not at cross-purposes – that benefits no one. I am going to ask Dr. Stankus to piece together a group of people to be a part of this, and then we can have some conversations about this.”
Board vice president Katie Loudin suggested the committee also incorporate several parents who have been impacted by the self-transport policy as participants.
“I think we need the best minds at the table to solve the challenge,” Loudin said.
The next meeting of the Upshur County BOE is slated for 6 p.m. Feb. 12 at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.