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Driver shortage, new bus company lead to school transit delays in Madison

The national bus company First Student had a rough first week of school

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

A nationwide driver shortage and a new transportation company for the Madison school district led to a tumultuous first week of school.

On Tuesday, the first day of school for the Madison Metropolitan School District, teachers at one elementary school walked 40 students home, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The district says those students live close enough to walk, but the bus route exists because students would have to cross a highway with no crossing guard.

At other schools, administrators drove buses.

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“It has been a problem every day,” said Linda Rand, whose daughter is in third grade at Lincoln Elementary School.

Rand said she considers herself lucky because her route hasn’t been affected as badly as some others. On Tuesday the bus picked up her daughter 30 minutes late. The next day, the bus had not yet departed the school by the time her daughter should have been dropped off at home.

“I know this ’cause I put an air tag on her (Wednesday) to make sure I had an idea of where she might be,” Rand said

Although Madison’s busing woes this week have been outsized, bus driver shortages have been a years-long problem in the state. Last week, the Wisconsin School Bus Association estimated 15 to 20 percent of driver jobs remain unfilled.

School administrators and bus company leaders said that delays and route changes are a feature of the first week of school, as routes are perfected and new students enroll at the last minute.

Rachel Hahn has two children in the Madison district, including a six-year-old son at Emerson Elementary School. She had to pick him up on the first day of school because the bus was so late.

On Wednesday afternoon, the bus was roughly an hour behind, she said. When the bus finally arrived, her son was not on it. He had gotten off at the prior stop and ended up walking across a busy street to her home. It seems there was a misunderstanding after Hahn had requested a stop change last year. But she wonders if a familiar driver would have recognized her son and known where to take him.

Deputy Superintendent TJ McCray said there are always “hiccups,” but problems may have been exacerbated by having a new bus contractor at the same time.

“Let me just be transparent to say, it probably wouldn’t be to this magnitude,” he said.

The school board approved a five year, $81 million contract with First Student in March. The national bus company’s contract bid was nearly a million dollars lower than the previous operator, Badger Bus Lines, which First Student then purchased.

Rand said her daughter has had the same bus driver all week, but the driver said she arrived in Madison the day before school started.

“I guess they flew drivers in from Texas and Seattle in order to meet the need of the district,” Rand said. “But obviously, you know, when you have drivers from completely different states driving the route for the first time, the day after they’ve arrived in the city, they’re not going to know the area, they’re not going to know the route, they’re not going to know how to get around or where the one-ways are around Madison.”

Jason Kierna, regional vice president at First Student, said the company has had to sometimes temporarily relocate employees from other states when starting a new contract. He said he was happy to hear Rand saw the same driver every day, because the company aims to have consistency on the routes.

The company has retained 90 percent of the drivers the district had last year, Kierna said. And the goal is to recruit and train enough local drivers to not need anyone from other states.

The company is offering $24 an hour, plus a $3,000 sign-on bonus for new drivers. Kierna said they have received more than 650 applications, with 16 people currently in training and another 81 potential drivers getting ready to be trained.

“If we could make it happen tomorrow, we would want every single one of the drivers to be Madison residents,” he said.

Blair Mosner Feltham is a school board member who was sworn in after the First Student contract vote took place. She expressed skepticism about the company and its commitment to Madison.

“I think that there is a difference between local bus companies and companies that are owned by massive private equity companies,” she said.

First Student is owned by EQT Partners, which is headquartered in Sweden.

“The problems that we’re seeing are not First Student workers who are lazy or incompetent. This is not MMSD workers who don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “This is a consequence of a model that’s actually fundamentally working to serve the bottom line of capital and not communities.”

Kierna disagreed.

“Our goal at First Student is to get students to school safely and on time,” he said “That’s a function of community – that’s a function of the drivers, the attendants, the staff, that all come from the Madison community.”