Frustration mounts over school bus changes that would make many students late for class

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Frustration is mounting on Maui as parents learn new bus pickup times for their kids still aren’t set or are set too late.

In areas where service was suspended entirely, the county bus starts after the opening school bell.

Always Investigating has been looking into a bus driver shortage on Maui and Kauai that’s leading to consolidation of routes and even a suspension of service for three Maui schools. The Department of Education says more than 650 students will be affected.

Parents tell us many of those students may not make it to class on time and dread a chaotic start to the school year next week.

Meanwhile, the bus contractor says it’s working feverishly to ramp up service which has been hamstrung by a staffing shortage.

The DOE says this week, bus riders from three Maui schools — Lahainaluna High, Baldwin High, and Iao Intermediate — will have to find another way to get there for now, as routes have been suspended for 383 students.

Officials suggested the already congested county bus, but the problem is for the 161 riders who need to get to Lahainaluna High. The first public transit to get them anywhere close to campus starts after school does.

“The (Regal) Wharf Cinema Center is the only bus that goes there, and they leave the wharf at 8 o clock,” said a Maui mother.

Add another 10 to 15 minutes to get the big hill up to Lahainaluna. Students would be dropped off four streets below Princess Nahienaena Elementary. They’d still have to hike up that hill, perhaps another 15 to 20 minutes, to get up to their school.

At that point, they’d be beyond late for the first bell.

Compounding the problem, the spokesman for Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa told us the buses already run at capacity, so if the 8 a.m. bus is full, the next one wouldn’t arrive until an hour later, and that’s even before the half-mile hike.

Lahainaluna has a strict policy. Once you’re late, you get these hours added up, and if you don’t finish those hours, you don’t graduate.

We asked Roberts Hawaii, which operates the county bus, can you just add more buses into that fleet to accommodate additional students?

“I think they’ll have to redirect somewhere else to move vehicles,” said Percy Higashi, Roberts Hawaii president and COO. “The county would (make that decision).”

As for parents who will get school bus service, hundreds more are on what will be consolidated routes that have still not been detailed by the DOE. Officials say details are still in the works, and they’ll try to send us a list by Friday.

Parents at schools unaffected by the suspension or consolidation say they’re either still not being told their pickup times, or they’re later than usual.

“When I called to ask them, Ground Transport told me they have no clue and hope they have the answer by Friday,” said the Maui mother.

She says her friend’s special needs child is supposed to be at school by 7:30 a.m. and eat breakfast there, but was told the new pickup time would be 7:25 a.m.

“From Honokowai to their school with no stops is a good 20 minutes,” the parent said. “How is her son going to be on time to school? He’ll miss breakfast. He’ll be late to school.”

Always Investigating took their concerns to Ground Transport.

We asked president and CEO Louis Gomes, “Their kids might not make it if they eat the free breakfast before school, or even to make it by the first bell. How did those schedules come about?”

“The schedule is put out by the DOE’s student transportation section, so what we’re doing is we’re taking their routes that they provide to us,” Gomes replied. “I’m sure we can make some adjustments. As soon as we add drivers on too, that would alleviate some of the concerns parents are going to have.”

How did it get this close to the school year with so many kinks still to be worked out?

On Maui, this will be the first year that the majority of service is going from Roberts Hawaii to being split between Roberts and Ground Transport. Ground Transport got a contract signed in January, but a long protest process by Roberts ran into late spring.

“We started actively looking for our first job fair, I believe it was in late April into May,” Gomes said.

“When did you raise the red flag to the DOE that there was some trouble ahead?” Always Investigating asked.

“We sent a letter in July. I mentioned to the state that if Roberts would be willing to help us in the Lahaina area for the first semester of school, that would give us time to hire qualified drivers,” Gomes said. “I would have thought that losing 71 routes, some drivers would have been looking for work somewhere. Their employees were reporting that Roberts was keeping them employed, paying them through the summer.”

DOE asked Roberts for help in early July. Roberts said okay if they got two routes back for the full seven-year contract with options and a cost-differential due to a wage and benefit war between the two operators.

DOE would only agree to one route, and a couple years at most.

“That’s it, so we basically thought about it and said basically what you’re really doing is you’re giving the two years for our competitor to be able to hire all the drivers he wants for the state, so we’ll decline that offer,” Higashi said.

“This is something that is unexpected, so we’re working through it,” said DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz. “There’s no way we could have predicted a situation like this.”

Always Investigating asked Dela Cruz, “Will there be any changes in how this procurement works and how the contract administration works to prevent this?”

“I think this is a lesson learned for the department,” she said. “They’re going to take a look at it and work more diligently going forward.”

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