Some Lahaina routes restored

Driver shortage down to 11 as Roberts, DOE engage in public battle over school bus woes

While some progress was reported Thursday in easing suspended public school bus services on Maui, the battle for public opinion escalated.

The state Department of Education reported some restoration of bus services beginning Monday in West Maui, and it said the Maui shortage of qualified school bus drivers was 11 as of Thursday, down from 20 two weeks earlier.

Several driver candidates were in the licensing process, and bus routes would be restored as they enter service.

Roberts Hawaii, the former bus contractor for all of Maui, took out a paid advertisement in The Maui News on Thursday alleging that the state Department of Education was unfair in awarding seven-year contracts for three of four Maui bus routes in November to Ground Transport in a “faulty evaluation process.”

“It’s a classic case of a centralized state government bureaucracy imposing their will on the counties and not being held accountable,” the Roberts ad says.

Because Ground Transport doesn’t have enough qualified drivers, the Education Department suspended bus service that affects 383 students at Iao Intermediate and Baldwin and Lahainaluna high schools. Maui High and Maui Waena Intermediate schools students saw longer waits and different pickup and drop-off times.

The Roberts ad says the Education Department could “immediately fix the school bus driver shortage on Maui by declaring that its contractor is in default for failing to meet its contractual obligations.”

“But the DOE has not done this despite knowing of the problem for months. Nor does it plan to,” the ad says.

In response to the ad, Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson submitted a letter Thursday to The Maui News. It says the ad contains “misinformation” aimed “to create controversy and manipulate public sentiment.”

Carlson called Robert’s published ad “self-serving” and “deliberately misleading.”

He says it “obscures the company’s significant role in creating the problem.”

According to Carlson, the Education Department launched a student transportation reform effort in 2013 that aimed to create better competition among school bus vendors. He says that effort has saved more than $12 million in more than three years through better management of transportation costs.

Previously, Roberts had all of the Maui public school bus routes, and they “were among the most expensive services in the state,” Carlson says. “And it was necessary to introduce a competitive process to reduce the amount of funding that was being diverted from classrooms to noninstructional services. The single Maui contract was split into four, covering different areas, which were awarded in strict accordance with state procurement process.”

Roberts won the largest Maui contract for Upcountry routes, but it lost three others to low-bidder Ground Transport, he said.

Carlson says Roberts delayed the award process with protests to the state Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs and with an appeal to Circuit Court.

“Both rulings found that (the Hawaii Department of Education) followed proper procedures and, after months of these legal delays, Ground Transport purchased over 70 new buses, established baseyards and all of its needed support operations on Maui, after 27 years serving Oahu,” he says.

An apparent shortage of drivers for Lahaina routes led to Ground Transport to seek assistance from Roberts, proposing a two-year contract at a higher pay rate, Carlson says.

“Roberts countered with demands for a seven-year contract at the higher rate, which would cost nearly $5 million more than the current contract,” he says.

He added that public schools officials have a fiscal responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars “prudently,” and meeting Roberts’ demands would have impacted the department’s budget over many years and required legislative approval.

“Roberts’ significant role in hindering the transition to the new contractor has directly contributed to and prolonged this situation,” he says.

Ground Transport officials have said that its bids were 5 to 8 percent lower than Roberts’.

Roberts’ ad asks Maui residents to contact elected officials via email to “demand that the DOE exhibit the values that are important to us.” It requests people send copies of their protests to RestoreBusServiceNow@robertshawaii.com.

The Education Department reported that additional Maui drivers have allowed the restoration of a bus route serving students at Lahainaluna High School, beginning Monday.

That route makes two morning runs. The first serves the Kapalua area on Lower Honoapiilani Road from Kapalua Drive, beginning at 6:33 a.m., and drops off students at the school at 7 a.m.

The second morning run on Ainakea Road begins at Kaniau Road at 7:10 a.m. and drops off the second set of students at 7:25 a.m.

In the afternoon, the route makes two runs: the first at 1:55 p.m. to Ainakea Road and a second at 2:30 p.m. to the Kapalua area.

The Education Department said Lahainaluna’s restored route is in addition to two routes already operating that serve Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nahienaena Elementary schools. The first runs to Honokahau Valley and the second to Olowalu.

School bus routes servicing more distant communities will be prioritized as more routes are restored, the Education Department reported.

Meanwhile, there’s also a shortage of qualified drivers on Kauai, the Education Department reported. There, the shortfall is eight drivers, down from 10 two weeks ago.

Kauai’s school bus routes have been consolidated to adjust to staffing shortages.

For a limited time, school bus contractors are offering hiring bonuses and increased wages.

Interested drivers with commercial driver’s licenses should contact the Student Transportation Services Branch at (808) 586-0170. Applicants without a commercial driver’s license also are being sought. The training and testing process is open and takes approximately three weeks to complete, the department said.

For more information about school bus registration, routes or service, contact the Get On Board Hotline at (808) 586-0161.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.