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Stranded at the bus stop: Shortage of drivers, permitted school buses leave children waiting

This time, it's not just a problem for the city of New Orleans, and not just an issue for charter schools.

NEW ORLEANS — Another school year begins with more school bus headaches for parents, school leaders and government officials in New Orleans’ all-charter public school system.

But this time, it's not just a problem for the city of New Orleans, and not just an issue for charter schools.

There's a shortage of school bus drivers across the whole area, and it’s even stranding students in better organized school districts like Jefferson Parish.

One frustrated parent who didn’t want to share her identity met us at her child's bus stop in Mid-City, where she and her Pierre A. Capdau student waited in vain last week.

“About 6:31 we came out here waiting on the school bus,” she said. “The school bus is supposed to pass before 7 o'clock. The school bus never did pass. So, we stood out here till about 7:30, almost 8 o'clock. The school bus never came.”

She said the girl’s father was able to drive her to school instead. But she knows many other parents aren’t so lucky.

“I have a way to get my child to school, but I'm looking out for the other parents, the parents that got to go to work,” she said. “They don't have a way to get there.”

The bus provider for Capdau is a national company called First Student. It provides 57 buses for InspireNOLA, a charter management organization that operates Capdau and eight other charter schools.

According to data from InspireNOLA, 38 of those 57 buses haven't received a new city permit in 2021. City spokesman Beau Tidwell says there's no excuse for that at this point.

“Buses can start coming in for inspection as early as April. April, May, June, nobody (showed up). Everybody waited till the last minute to do this, last week. So that's why we have this backlog situation,” Tidwell said.

It’s hardly unique to First Student's buses or InspireNOLA's schools.

Tidwell says only 392 of the 695 school buses registered in the city have received the necessary permits. That's about 56 percent -- not great, but up significantly from just 16 percent a week ago.

“For us, there's only so much we can do,” he said, adding that the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau is open every weekday morning for inspections and inspection staff has been approved for overtime to handle inspections by appointment in the afternoons.

The New Orleans Public School district’s spokeswoman, Taslin Alfonzo, said NOLA Public Schools leaders met with City Hall staff on Tuesday and were assured that most of the remaining bus permits, or CPNCs, are being processed quickly.

“The city is providing an updated report on the remaining applications to be approved, as well as a standard timeline for approving submitted applications in the future,” Alfonzo said. “We are confident that with the ongoing support from the City of New Orleans these issues will be resolved shortly.”

But even if the 44 percent of school buses get their New Orleans city permits quickly, it still won’t solve the lack of bus drivers.

Drivers in New Orleans also have to get special city permits through the Ground Transportation Bureau, and there’s a backlog there too. InspireNOLA sent WWL-TV a list of 73 drivers First Student uses on its routes, and 54 of them have city permits that are expired.

InspireNOLA’s Latoye Brown said First Student blames the backlog of driver permits on the city. Tidwell said the Ground Transportation Bureau is focused on clearing the backlog of bus inspections and permits.

Then there’s the pandemic, which is being blamed for creating a shortage of bus drivers that knows no district or municipal boundaries and appears to be affecting every school bus company.

The Jefferson Parish Public School district uses First Student to run 150 routes, about half the total for the district. District spokesman Ted Beasley said First Student wasn’t able to do 21 of those routes Monday and 20 of them on Tuesday because of a lack of drivers.

First Student has been dropping flyers in neighborhoods around the metro area, offering healthy salaries and signing bonuses, even for drivers who don't have their commercial license yet.

Back in New Orleans, Tidwell said one bus operator set an appointment to get 15 buses inspected last Friday and had to cancel because there weren’t enough drivers to get them to the inspection station in the Desire Area.

The New Orleans Public School district says it's working with the Regional Transit Authority to recruit RTA city bus drivers to handle school routes during their off hours, as well as trying to bring back retired drivers.

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely sent a letter to parents, asking them for patience.

“A shortage of school bus drivers across the city and nation due to the covid pandemic has severely impacted bus routes and student transportation,” McKneely wrote. “We are in constant contact with our vendor to explore all avenues possible to resolve this situation. We understand the inconvenience this has caused some of our families, and for that we apologize and are researching every solution.”

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