LAUSD Parents Endure Another Back-To-School Ritual: Bus Delays

A Los Angeles Unified School District bus idles on the curb on Aug. 9, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

In the days before school started, Estella Martinez received three different notices — a letter, an email and another online message from the Los Angeles Unified School District — outlining where her son should catch the school bus.

All three messages were different.

The letter said the bus would pick up Martinez's seventh grader in Northridge at 6:55 a.m. The email said he'd catch the bus at 7:15. The other online message also listed a 7:15 pickup time — but from a different location, three miles away.

"People are just calling and winging it," said Martinez. "They're talking directly to the bus driver, and the bus drivers are doing the best they can."

Martinez, whose son attends Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, is one of five parents from across L.A. to call KPCC/LAist to report problems with their bus in the first days of school.

About two-thirds of the students who ride LAUSD buses attend magnet schools, like Martinez's son does. Their parents — and those with children in special education placements — depend on district-provided buses to transport their children to schools far outside their home neighborhoods.

LAUSD buses 43,200 children each day. Bus delays and other glitches are inevitable at the beginning of a new school year. The district's transportation division reports to LAUSD Chief Financial Officer Scott Price, who said officials are already making adjustments to bus routes and schedules to smooth out the kinks.

"This will be at least a two- to three-week process," Price said, "as we make sure we get things right."

'WHY RUN BUSES THAT ARE ONLY 10 PERCENT FULL?'

Many of these early-year transportation problems seem to have converged on Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies — known as "SOCES" for short — according to Martinez and other parents there.

This year, LAUSD consolidated 85 of its 1,600 bus routes — a move Price said was more about efficiency than cost savings per se. "It doesn't make sense," Price said, "to run buses that are 10 to 15 percent full."

Because of these consolidations, the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies — which, vexingly, is in Reseda — now shares 19 of its bus routes with another magnet school three miles away, according to a letter the school's principal sent to parents.

But the two schools' schedules don't always align. One day a week, SOCES lets students out an hour early to give staff professional development time in the afternoon. But on Tuesday, the district didn't account for the early release and sent its buses at the normal pickup time. Rosa Mejia of North Hills said her two children at SOCES waited around on campus to catch a bus for more than an hour.

'OUR KIDS ARE STRESSED OUT'

Mejia and Martinez said their consolidated routes have been consistently behind schedule.

Last year, Mejia said the bus was rarely late in the morning. This year so far, the bus has been consistently behind schedule when even a delay of even ten minutes can make her late to work.

"It's the first time it's happened like this" during the first week of school, Mejia said. "We've had different bus stops because my kids have moved, but there's always been consistency ... unless there's an accident."

In the afternoon, Mejia was told the bus would drop her kids off at 4 p.m. She said the bus has consistently arrived closer to 4:30 p.m.

Martinez has resorted to driving to pick up her children herself rather than wait around, but shared a text message from another parents showing the bus is consistently arriving more than 40 minutes after afternoon dismissal.

By consolidating routes, "I get you're saving money," Martinez said. "But our kids are stressed-out, it's hot, there's no air conditioning on the buses, they're standing outside and it's hard on the families."

Price didn't have details to respond to specific complaints, but encouraged parents with transportation problems to call a district hotline: 1-800-LA-BUSES

"We need to know if there's an issue," Price said. "Of course, we look at our own arrivals and adjust those daily also, so there will be fine-tuning."

'THEY DON'T HAVE AS MANY DRIVERS'

Compounding the challenge this year: a shortage of drivers. LAUSD would like to employ more than 1,000 drivers, but started the school year 73 short of its target. After another two-dozen new drivers complete training, the district will be only 47 short.

LAUSD's Scott Price said those numbers of drivers mean "we are able to cover most routes most of the days" and that the district is "in a stronger position than last year." Still, the shortage means the district also has a thin bench of substitutes.

During the first week of school, Cecily Harrison of Hancock Park called to report her daughter's bus from Koreatown to Hamilton High School was running more than an hour late. The LAUSD dispatcher Harrison spoke to cited the shortage as a possible reason for the delay.

"He explained to me," Harrison recalled in an interview last week, "he has no idea if it's budget cuts or what, but that they don't have enough drivers, so they're asking other drivers to absorb other routes."

On the parent email lists Rebecca Weiker follows, the same explanation for the delays is floating around: "that [district officials] are sort of scrambling, they don't have as many drivers." Weiker, who lives in Los Feliz, says her son's bus to Cleveland High School in Reseda routinely arrived late during the first week of school.

But Weiker said Wednesday that the bus has been arriving on time this week. Harrison, too, said the delays have subsided somewhat — but that the district is still looking for a regular driver for her daughter's return trip.

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION FOR THE DRIVER SHORTAGE?

Price noted the shortage of bus drivers is a national problem. Most major private school bus contractors told School Bus Fleet magazine — there truly is a trade journal for everything — that they cannot meet hiring goals. Nationally, analysts say low pay, poor benefits and barriers to obtaining a commercial drivers' license are fueling the shortage.

Historically, L.A. Unified bus drivers have complained it was difficult to earn raises or to work enough hours to make a decent living. Blanca Gallegos, a spokesperson for the union representing L.A. Unified bus drivers, SEIU Local 99, says these factors "often led to school bus drivers leaving for better paying jobs with L.A. City or County."

However, Gallegos said the union and the district recently renegotiated the drivers' labor contract to address both issues: the new contract lifts a cap on work hours and makes it easier, in theory, for drivers to earn a raise.

If you're an LAUSD parent, what's been your experience with the buses? Let us know below.


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