Late and unpredictable school buses are a problem that has received more attention in recent years. The issue has irked students, parents and school district leaders across Massachusetts, and many have pointed to the national shortage of bus drivers as a primary cause.
But public school leaders and bus industry officials say the driver shortage is only one factor wreaking havoc on bus schedules. Most Massachusetts school systems partner with outside vendors to bus kids, but over the past decade, competition for these multimillion-dollar contracts has declined significantly.
According to the State Registry of Motor Vehicles, 66 companies provide school bus service in Massachusetts, and a large group of the state’s school bus industry estimates that number has decreased at least 20% since the 1980s.
School districts say they now face fewer choices, worries about higher prices and more frustrated phone calls from families. A small number are now moving to check the bus themselves.
The state Department of Education says that while it is monitoring service and complaints about chronic delays in Boston, it is not monitoring problems in other districts to the same extent. He added that he points to districts with bus schedule problems for information on hiring more drivers. But Boston is not the only school system that has experienced delays.
In Salem, Beth Anne Cornell, a school committee member, said she fields many calls from angry parents about late buses — even buses that don’t arrive at all. Cornell explained that she often tells parents she will call the bus company, North Reading Transportation, but she has a hard time getting through and suspects the company is understaffed.
“You want to call the office to say, ‘hey can you check the GPS to find out where this bus is?’ ” Cornell said. “But you can’t get somebody on the phone because they’re dealing with crises all over the place.”
The district, Cornell said, feels stuck with the service it receives from this company and its owner Beacon Mobility, a national transit corporation. Her contract was finalized last summer and the company was the sole bidder for the job.
“It’s not like we’re choosing from four companies, and we’re choosing the one that’s the best fit for us,” Cornell said. “You take what you can get.”
A spokeswoman for North Reading Transportation, which also serves Lawrence, Haverhill and Cambridge schools, said the company is working to recruit drivers with hiring bonuses and other incentives.
“The company is in constant communication with our school districts to ensure that students are safely transported to and from school every day,” Tim Sheehan, the company’s senior vice president of operations, said in a statement.
Contracts go to the lowest – sometimes the only – bidder
According to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and other statewide education groups, Salem is not alone in facing poor competition for school bus contracts.
“You get more offers for [school meals] than you do for transportation,” said Glenn Koocher, the organization’s executive director. “Any district…would be lucky to get a single bid that they liked. And it would be extremely lucky and rare if they get more than one bidder.”
Koocher added that many districts in the state also worry that with limited competition for contracts, companies can raise their prices without pressure.
Pam Reipold, president of the industry group School Transportation Association of Massachusetts (STAM), said she understands how this puts schools at a business disadvantage. But she blames a shrinking industry and says most contractors aren’t inflating their prices.
“There just aren’t enough buses anywhere in the country anymore,” Reipold said, adding that companies with a full roster of bus drivers are in high demand and command a premium.
Reipold and others with STAM say there are several reasons why bus companies, especially smaller family-owned businesses, have continued to fold in recent years.
First, a state law aimed at preventing back-channel deals requires school districts — and all public agencies — to choose the lowest “responsible” bidder that meets their contractual needs.
“You don’t have to be the best,” Reipold said. “You don’t have to have the best safety rating, the best maintenance, or the newest vehicles.”
Another factor that Reipold’s group points to is the low supply from the larger national companies.
“Family-owned businesses … merged with larger companies or simply closed their doors as statewide companies came in and began undercutting smaller companies to gain a foothold in the state,” Tom said in an email. Hamilton, the executive director of STAM.
According to Sharie Lewis, with the International Association of School Business Officials, underbidding wars in school contracts are an issue facing public schools across the country. And once schools and companies assign contracts, she said districts are “kind of tied unless you have some resources to get out of it.”
The stakes of the contract can be high for school districts and students.
For years, criticism of unreliable school transportation has plagued Boston, the state’s largest public school district. It is now collecting proposals for a new five-year bus contract after the current deal with national company Transdev ends this school year. It is unclear whether Transdev, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, made a bid again.
Earlier this month, some of those complaints culminated in a formal complaint to state education leaders from Greater Boston Legal Services and a prominent state child advocacy group.
“[Boston Public Schools] transportation services remain inadequate, in complete disarray, and disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities,” the complaint’s cover letter states.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said it is investigating whether the district is violating the rights of certain students with disabilities, and the investigation could result in “corrective action, such as training or changes in policies and procedures.”
In a statement, Superintendent Mary Skipper said the district is working with the advocacy groups that filed the complaint to find a resolution. She added that, “We value our partnership with DESE and will continue to work to identify areas to improve our transportation system for all students, especially our students with disabilities.”
Boston’s ongoing school bus problems are perhaps the most well-known, but so many districts struggled with the issue that state lawmakers formed a special commission in 2019 to address the issue. By late 2020, the group offered several recommendations, such as creating a statewide registry of bus vendors, extending how long a school bus can operate, and fixing a state law that limits funding for schools that want to operate fleets. their if a private seller is. nearby.
While COVID shifted lawmakers’ priorities, not much happened with the recommendations. But in an email, state Rep. Alice Peisch said she hopes some, if not all, of the proposals will be taken up in the next legislative session.
Meanwhile, some school districts are trying to ease the stress on their bus systems to improve service. In Salem, city and school officials designed safe pedestrian routes so more students could walk to class. And in Framingham, district leaders last year handed out 100 free bikes and helmets to students.
Worcester school leaders, however, took a more drastic step. Starting this fall, the school system began using its own transportation system after frustrations grew for years with its former bus contractor.