Parents making do with no school buses

But they are frustrated, wondering when service will return; pressure mounts on DOE, contractor as three affected schools open to all students

Iao Intermediate School’s driveway is jam-packed with family vehicles as school lets out Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday was the first day for all students to return to classes after summer vacation at Iao Intermediate, Baldwin and Lahainaluna high schools. All are affected by school bus route suspensions. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — Frustrations and worries mounted Wednesday among parents and even a West Maui lawmaker as 383 students at three Maui schools continued to deal with temporary bus route suspensions.

Wednesday was the first day all students returned to classes at Iao Intermediate and Baldwin and Lahainaluna high schools. All are affected by the route suspensions triggered by new school bus contractor Ground Transport not having enough qualified drivers for all routes. The company continued to struggle with recruiting drivers.

Maui High and Maui Waena Intermediate schools have some of their routes consolidated, which has changed pickup and drop-off times for students.

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

On Wednesday, West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey called on Gov. David Ige to intervene, calling the situation “completely unacceptable.”

Kayla Yoruw, 11, (from left), Kawelo Yoruw-Pua, 13, and Kaohu Yoruw-Pua, 12, climb into a car with Sherwin Yoruw, who arrived early enough to get a prized parking place on South Market Street Wednesday afternoon. Also in for the ride, but not in photo, was Kacey-Lee Pua, 13. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

No Maui Bus routes connect directly with Lahainaluna, he said. And, the lack of student bus transportation is aggravating traffic on West Maui roads, including Lahainaluna Road. That road provides access to three schools: Lahainaluna High, Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nahienaena Elementary.

Parents have pointed out that even the Lahaina bypass is more choked with cars, and some worry about being late to work.

“The bus shortage has exasperated an already existing traffic problem as parents are now scrambling to get kids to school and by their own means before the work day,” he said.

McKelvey reported getting phone calls from upset and frustrated constituents asking for help. But as the Legislature is not in session, he said his hands are tied. He is, however, trying to throw light on the problem to get help.

“On behalf of all the hardworking parents and keiki of West Maui, I am humbly asking the governor to step in and have the Board of Education either issue a supplemental contract for the busing services at Lahainaluna High School, and any other areas, or rescind the contract in its entirety for failure to perform,” he said.

Mike McCartney, Ige’s chief of staff, said in an email Wednesday afternoon that “the governor recognizes the hardship caused by the school bus crisis on Maui. We have reached out to Department of Education officials, who assure us that they are doing all they can to remedy this urgent situation. We thank our students and families on Maui for their patience as the DOE works with the contractor to provide the best transportation services possible.”

Ige’s office said the governor does not have the authority to cancel a contract.

The Education Department has said that Oahu-based Ground Transport, which won a seven-year contract for Central Maui and Lahaina areas beginning this school year, was short about 15 qualified drivers.

Roberts Hawaii previously held the school contracts for all of Maui, and still holds the contract for the Makawao area, the largest bus route. It also holds the Maui Bus contract.

Department of Education spokesman Derek Inoshita said Wednesday evening there were reports of tardiness at Iao, Baldwin and Lahainaluna schools, “but school administrators are making adjustments to ensure students affected by the transportation delays have adequate time for school breakfast and are not penalized for tardiness.”

Ground Transport has not provided public school officials with a “concrete timeframe” for when new drivers will be hired, Inoshita said.

“As qualified applicants are hired, routes will be placed back in service,” he said. “Three new drivers have been hired and placed into service this week on Maui, but 14 vacancies still need to be filled.”

Ground Transport has the option to issue subcontracts to other qualified bus vendors to run routes and had contacted them to do so, he said.

Ground Transport officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said there were students riding the Maui Bus on Wednesday.

For the morning commute, 19 students caught the bus to Maui High; eight to Baldwin High; and three to Lahainaluna.

Antone added that there is not a way for the Maui Bus drivers to know if the students were using a pass provided by the Education Department or if they were bought privately.

But, as the matter continues, parents are finding ways to transport their children to school.

“It’s a little stressful with no buses. Everyone is picking up,” said Waikapu parent Cecelia Fernandez, who made sure she was at Iao Intermediate 45 minutes prior to school ending so she could beat traffic and find a parking spot.

She even had a portable cooler with soda to keep her cool.

Fernandez said that, if the suspended bus routes continue, she would have to discuss with family members how they plan to handle transportation for their 8th-grader.

Wailuku parent William Behrendt had to fork out $45 for a monthly Maui Bus pass so he could accompany his two 12-year-old children to Iao Intermediate after their bus route to Iao Parkside was suspended.

“I’m not going to let my kids ride alone,” he said.

He got his 7th-graders the free Maui Bus passes the Education Department had provided.

Behrendt and his wife are disabled and do not own a car. They rely on school buses to take their children to school.

Behrendt has a heart condition, among other ailments. And now he has to juggle his doctors’ appointments around the Maui Bus schedule so he can pick up his children.

His daughter, Chaia Feliciano, said she misses riding the school bus because “our friends are there.”

Behrendt’s son, Christian, said he prefers riding the school bus “because now my dad has to take us to school.”

Sherwin Yoruw, who has three children at Iao Intermediate, said he left work several hours early to make sure he could pick them up along with a niece.

“I got to rush over here to come pick them up,” he said as he waited in his car for the school bell to ring Wednesday afternoon. “I go back and forth, taking up my gas.”

Yoruw said he cut his own work hours short and was fortunate he has an understanding boss at Alamo car rental where he is a service agent.

“She understands what is going on,” Yoruw said.

On the plus side, Yoruw said he spends a little more time with his children.

But for Waikapu parent Mo Obregon, who has a freshman son a Baldwin High School, her work schedule is not as flexible. She took vacation time to pick up her son, but in the long run it could be a strain on her job.

“It’s kind of inconvenient, that way I got to use my time off from work every day,” she said.

But next week, she may not be able to get off from her state job so easily.

“Now I’m worried,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point.”

She may need to ask co-workers for help.

“It’s an inconvenience not only for me,” she said. “I can imagine everyone else who is working.”

She said her husband is unable to pick up their son because he leaves for his job long before school starts and gets home late.

Obregon said she’s apprehensive about putting her son on the Maui Bus.

“I’m kind of leery about that, get the whole public on the bus. . . . I feel more peace of mind if I go to pick him up myself.”

For school bus route questions or concerns, call the Get On Board Hotline at (808) 586-0161 weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.