Bus driver shortage offers bumpy start to new school year

Lahainaluna, Baldwin and Iao Intermediate to take the Maui Bus

Brand new school buses are lined up at the Central Maui Baseyard along Mokulele Highway on Tuesday afternoon. The 2018 models are part of a fleet of new vehicles Ground Transport Inc. will be using as it takes over the contract to bus students from the Baldwin, Maui High and Lahainaluna complexes when school opens next week. They have the buses but are short drivers, meaning bus riders at Baldwin and Lahainaluna high and Iao Intermediate schools will be riding the Maui Bus for the time being next week. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

School bus riders at Lahainaluna High, Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate schools will be riding the Maui Bus instead of their regular yellow buses when school starts next week due to a “crisis” shortage of bus drivers for a new transportation provider, the state Department of Education said.

Service to those three schools has been temporarily suspended. Maui High bus riders also will be affected; certain routes will be consolidated, meaning longer wait times for students after school, the department special bulletin said.

“An unexpected crisis relating to a shortage of qualified school bus drivers on Maui has caused the HIDOE to take drastic measures to protect student health and safety,” the special bulletin said, adding that the measures take effect Tuesday and will remain until “the driver circumstances change.”

Routes will be “strategically restored” as new drivers are hired, said Derek Inoshita, department spokesman, on Tuesday.

Bus riders at the three schools will be eligible for a free monthly Maui Bus youth pass. Parents must submit a completed Form ST-70 (Application to Ride School Bus) to their school’s main office and, upon approval, the pass will be provided.

Maui High students affected by route consolidation will be provided free school bus passes during the consolidation period, the department said.

Bus service for special education and elementary students will not be affected; maintaining service to those two groups was given priority, said Inoshita.

New vendor Ground Transport, which has been busing students on Oahu for 26 years, is short 10 bus drivers holding a commercial driver’s license on Maui but has all the buses and other staff and operations in place, he said.

President and CEO of Ground Transport Louis Gomes told The Maui News in May that his company was looking for 46 CDL bus drivers and that there always is a shortage of good drivers.

Gomes could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In November, Ground Transport won a seven-year contract that begins this school year for three of the four areas on Maui — Baldwin, Lahainaluna and Maui High.

Roberts Hawaii, which had been providing bus service for all of the Maui areas, retained the Makawao route, which is the largest contract.

Roberts officials said Tuesday that service in its area is unaffected.

Driver shortages, like the one experienced by Ground Transport, “can occur during transitions between contracts,” Inoshita said. He said that the department, with the input of Ground Transport, “has discussed options with Roberts Hawaii but no agreement has been reached.”

Percy Higashi, president and chief operating officer for Roberts, said Tuesday that most of its school bus drivers stayed with his company. He noted that Roberts offers more flexibility and driving options with its tour operations and Maui Bus contract.

Finding CDL drivers is difficult so Roberts has invested in designated trainers for school bus drivers and other drivers, Higashi said. In a pinch, Roberts has deployed school bus drivers from Oahu to Kauai to fill shortages there, he added.

Roberts was notified by the department of the driver shortage July 7. “We told them we would be happy to help but wanted advance notice,” said Higashi.

On July 21, the department asked Roberts if it would consider leasing employees to Ground Transport, but Roberts declined citing liability issues, Higashi said.

Several days later, the department proposed that Roberts would take over the Lahaina area, Higashi said. He said that the west side was not favorable to Roberts because it is far from its baseyard near the Kahului Airport. Roberts asked to substitute the Maui High area, which is the second largest contract.

No deal could be struck, he said.

Higashi complained that Ground Transport’s efforts to recruit drivers by offering higher wages and bonuses had increased Roberts total wages by $550,000 annually and $250,000 annually for bonuses because it had to match the higher compensation. The department was willing to reimburse Roberts for some of those costs in its offers, he said.

Higashi suggested the department employ a “termination for convenience” clause in its contract with Ground Transport. He explained that the clause, which has been imposed on Roberts in the past, allows for the department to terminate a contract if it purchases the equipment. Roberts would be willing to purchase buses if a contract were terminated on Maui, he said.

Gomes said in May that Ground Transport would have 80 school buses, mostly new, on Maui for the upcoming school year.

“HIDOE appreciates our students’ and parents’ patience during this time, and services will be restored to normal as new drivers are hired,” said department spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz. “We are working diligently with school bus contractors to minimize the impacts to our students.”

She encouraged qualified CDL drivers on Maui to apply with the Student Transportation Services Branch at (808) 586-0170. She noted the increased wages and signing bonuses for qualified applicants.

The department said that bus companies on Maui transport about 7,700 general and special education students.

For more information about public school bus service, contact the Maui District Student Transportation office at 243-1171 or call the Get On Board Hotline at (808) 586-0161.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS