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Amid bus driver shortage, Madison district shifts school start times

The changes take effect Nov. 6 at some elementary and middle schools

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The front of an electric school bus is shown with its lightning bolt logo
A Lion electric school bus is seen on display in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 22, 2023. Eric Gay/AP Photo

Faced with complaints about bus delays, Wisconsin’s second-largest school district is changing school start times at some elementary and middle schools more than two months into the school year.

Administrators with the Madison Metropolitan School District say the altered schedule will make it easier for drivers to get to more schools each day amid a nationwide shortage in school bus drivers.

Starting Nov. 6, start and dismissal times at the affected schools will shift by five to 50 minutes. The changes will continue for the rest of the school year, district officials say.

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Madison started contracting with a company called First Student for busing services this year, but it’s been plagued by complaints about late buses.

“Adjusting the start and end times for a number of schools will allow for more efficient use of First Student’s resources, while upholding MMSD’s belief in the necessity of a later start for our adolescents in our middle schools,” a news release from the district said. “MMSD leaders recognize the initial disruption this change may bring to families and staff; however, our goal is that this new system will ultimately lead to more reliable, safe, and equitable bus transportation moving forward across the district.”

Madison resident Kayla Ramón drives her sixth-grade son and a neighbor to Whitehorse Middle School each morning. There, the start of the school day will be pushed back 20 minutes to 9 a.m.

But, she’s not sure how she’ll be able to keep up her son’s carpool, since she needs to clock in for her nursing shift at 8:30 a.m.

“What are working parents supposed to do?” said Ramón, noting that her husband works in the early morning.

Ramón’s daughter takes a school bus to Madison’s Herbert Schenk Elementary School, which adjoins Whitehorse and will continue to start at 8:30 a.m. Ramón says the transportation situation for her son is different, because the district typically doesn’t offer bus service to middle school students who live within a one-and-a-half-mile “walk zone” of the school.

Since Ramón doesn’t want her son crossing busy Milwaukee Street to get to school, she expects he’ll likely be stuck waiting longer outside his middle school after being dropped off each morning.

“I’m really supposed to leave my child outside the school from 8:10 in the morning until, you know, potentially 8:50 when they open the door for kids to come inside for school to start by 9,” Ramón said. “How is that a solution? How is that reasonable in Wisconsin winter?”

Madison School Board Member Nicki Vander Meulen said the board should have been given an opportunity to vote on the altered schedule, which was announced by the administration on Monday.

“This affects all of our students, but most definitely it affects our Black and brown students,” said Vander Meulen, adding that she believes Madison’s north and east side schools are most affected by the changes. “We’re trying to put children first. We can’t put our bus schedule on the backs of children.”

Lisa Kvistad has been the district’s interim superintendent since June as the board searches for a more-permanent replacement for Carlton Jenkins, who announced his retirement after three years leading the district.

If the board had voted on the new schedule, Vander Muelen says she would have voted “no.” She’s asked for a vote on the issue to be scheduled for the next regular board meeting on Oct. 30.

“I have parents who are terrified,” Vander Muelen said. “I have parents who say that their job may be threatened because they have got to change their schedule, again, eight weeks into school.”

District spokesperson Ian Folger did not respond Tuesday to follow-up questions from Wisconsin Public Radio about the district’s news release, or about issues such as whether the punctuality of buses has improved.

Madison’s school board approved a five-year busing contract in February with First Student, which had the lowest bid at $81 million, First Student later purchased Badger Bus Lines, which was Madison’s previous bus contractor, and which offered the district an $82 million bid.

“We recognize this school year has been difficult for MMSD families who rely on us for transportation,” Jen Biddinger, a First Student spokesperson said. “An ongoing nationwide bus driver shortage is impacting service for school districts across the country. We appreciate MMSD’s partnership in finding solutions that will help ensure all its students receive reliable transportation to and from school.”

Earlier this fall, the Wisconsin School Bus Association told WPR an estimated 15 to 20 percent of driver jobs are vacant across the state. Drivers and industry observers have pointed to factors including the stress of the job, its unusual split schedule and the ability to earn higher pay in other roles that require a commercial driver’s license.

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