SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - Students need to be in class to learn. But, in one local school district, the buses can't seem to get them to school on time.
Parents in Suffolk asked 10 On Your Side to get answers from school officials.
A normal wait at one Suffolk bus stop, could last anywhere from 5 to 50 minutes, parent Patrick Smyth tells WAVY.com. He stands at the stop every morning with his 7 year old son, Dylan.
"It's ridiculous. I mean, these are our tax dollars and these are our kids," said Smyth. "A lot of these kids are kindergarten kids - 5 years old - standing out there. You cant treat them like that."
The normal pick up time at the stop is 8:15 a.m., but Smyth says his son is often picked up after 8:30 a.m. and once as late as 8:58 a.m., which is two minutes before the first bell rings at Dylan's school.
"School starts at 9, so there's no way he got to school on time," said Smyth. "And I asked Dylan, 'What time did you get to school?' and he said, 'About 10 o'clock.'"
Superintendent Kevin Alston says the school system is well aware of the problem.
"Believe me, it's disconcerting, for sure," said Alston, who agreed to sit down with WAVY.com to discuss the bus issue. "Our objective is to get them there, every day, all of them, on time."
Alston provided WAVY.com with a log of arrival times at Dylan's school since the beginning of the calendar year. Together, we found at least one bus that arrived at the elementary school after 8:55 a.m. every day for an entire week.
Click here to see a log of bus arrival times at one Suffolk elementary school, since the beginning of the calendar year.
Alston says the root of the problem is the number of substitute drivers available to the school system. Suffolk has a list of 25 substitute bus drivers. Thirteen of them are currently assigned as full time drivers, and the other 12 didn't show up for their physical, and therefore cannot drive.
That leaves the school system with no substitutes.
"Exactly," said Alston. "And we are looking at the school system that has the most land area of all."
When bus drivers are absent, the other drivers have to cover their routes. Alston says the buses that run double routes are often the buses that arrive late to school. Every morning, there is a list of buses that need substitute drivers. And, oftentimes, it is a long list.
"This is pretty much a normal day...20," said Alston, showing WAVY.com the list. "We have had as many as 40 out in one day."
Alston is puzzled by the shortage. The pay Suffolk offers bus drivers is competitive in the region and the school system offers benefits to substitute drivers. But for some reason, no one applies for the jobs, and, everyone agrees, the students are the ones who suffer from a broken system.
"Everybody said the same thing - we are going to have to drive our kids to school because we don't know when the bus is going to get here," said Smyth.
The superintendent has proposed a solution to the school board, that would stagger the schools' start times, as follows:
Middle School: 7:25 a.m. - 2 p.m.
High School: 8:30 a.m. - 3:05 p.m.
Elementary school would be broken up into two bells.
Group A 9:15 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Group B 9:40 a.m. - 3:55 p.m.
Click here to see the superintendent's proposal in its entirety.
Alston says the proposal would allow for all 130 buses to work one bell at a time, while the old system divided the buses between all the schools. He says it's a better use of the drivers they already have, and eliminates the worry of finding substitutes.
But, in this case, the solution also poses new problems. Not every parent thinks staggering start times is a good idea.
"I think they could do a lot better than that," said Smyth. "[But, I agree] something has to be done. You can't keep leaving the kids on the corner, waiting for the bus every day."
The proposal will eliminate 30 bus driver positions, mostly through attrition, which would save $676,136. Having 30 fewer buses on the road would save an additional $189,000, for a grand total of $865,136 in savings.
There will be three public input sessions in Suffolk this week:
- Tuesday, Feb. 26 at Lakeland High School, 7 p.m.
- Wednesday, Feb. 27 at Nansemond River High School, 7 p.m.
- Thursday, Feb. 28, King's Fork Middle School, 7 p.m.
After the public input process, the school board will vote on the proposal March 14.
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