Parents fuming as bus driver shortage continues

Many more cars on the road equal traffic jams, late arrivals at school

A typical 10-minute drive to school has morphed into hourlong traffic jams for Lahaina students as the state Department of Education and its new school bus contractor Ground Transport continue to struggle to find bus drivers.

Today marks the first week of canceled bus routes for 383 students at three Maui schools in full session.

While the lack of routes has primarily affected Lahainaluna High, Iao Intermediate and Baldwin High schools, they aren’t the only ones hit by consolidated routes or heavy traffic.

“We had to leave at 6:45 to get to school on time and school starts at 7:45. I mean, really?” said Kari Alexander in a phone call Tuesday. “The bypass is all the way down to Panda Express. It’s moving at a snail’s pace. It’s unbelievable.”

Alexander, who drops off her two children at Lahaina Intermediate, said it usually takes 10 minutes to reach the school from their home in Launiupoko. She said her friend, who lives only five minutes away, takes 30 to 40 minutes to pick up her children from the school. Lahainaluna Road provides access to the high school as well as Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nahienaena Elementary.

“There’s 400 more parents who have to drive their kids to school,” she said. “Parents are taking other kids to help each other out, but nobody is getting to school on time and that’s a problem.”

West Maui Rep. Angus Mc-Kelvey has urged Gov. David Ige and the Board of Education to intervene after getting phone calls from upset and frustrated constituents asking for help. McKelvey said Lahainaluna parents even began a sign-waving protest after a bus driver was forced to leave five kids behind due to lack of space Friday morning.

“According to the parents, neither they nor the school have received any concrete timetable or further information from the DOE about when, if ever, this issue will be resolved,” McKelvey said in a news release late Tuesday afternoon. “Although students affected by the crisis were excused from any tardies for last week, they have no advance notice of whether this will be the case week by week, making them very frustrated in trying to plan for work, medical appointments and other essential family issues. It leaves parents little or no time to plan . . . how are they expected to plan for weeks two, three or four when it is a continuous wait and see by all affected parents and local school workers?”

DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said in a brief phone interview Tuesday afternoon that the department was looking at the possibility of restoring some service next week. Inoshita did not provide further details.

Bus route suspensions were announced a week before students ended their summer vacations. Parents were left scrambling to find ways to get their children to and from school. The DOE is providing free public bus passes to affected students, but Mayor Alan Arakawa has said the county’s public buses cannot handle large amounts of students in addition to regular passengers.

Ground Transport officials did not respond for comment Tuesday.

Mike McCartney, Ige’s chief of staff, said in an email last week that the governor “recognizes the hardship” caused by the lack of bus service and contacted DOE officials, who assured them that “they are doing all they can to remedy this urgent situation.”

McKelvey said Tuesday that he believes the governor can be a “powerful voice and advocate” alongside the Education Board, which he appoints, to deliver a solution and specific timeline to the community as soon as possible.

“Parents have expressed their profound anger and disappointment in what they see as a hands-off approach from the governor’s office in their reliance on these assurances, because there has been no communication of any estimated timeline as to if and when complete bus service will be restored,” he said. “There is no question that this has caused, and continues to cause, stress and damages to the parents and children that are adversely affected. It is bad enough this bus shortage was sprung on the community at the last minute and now the department expects the parents to continue to take up the slack for an indeterminate amount of time.”

Baldwin Principal Catherine Kilborn said parents have stepped up by carpooling and making other arrangements to get their children to school. She said the school also has retained a bus line for students who live further away in places like Kahakuloa.

“It think, surprisingly, it’s much less of a headache than we’ve anticipated,” Kilborn said Tuesday. “Our community is very responsive and very concerned about our students’ education, so many of them have made arrangements.

“Even though staff met and came up with some contingency plans that might involve students getting to school really late, we really haven’t experienced much of that.”

Kilborn said it is hard for her to tell how many students are affected because many families have not signed up for the bus, knowing that the service would not be provided. She said families can sign up for the bus at any time.

She added that parents have kept a good attitude, despite the inconvenience and that she remains in contact with DOE officials about the return of bus service.

“It’s a tough situation, and we don’t want any of our students to fall behind,” she said. “Despite the frustration over the situation, the response by our parents hasn’t been ‘tough luck, they’re not coming.’ We don’t have any of that.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.