Metro

It isn’t just Boston that has school bus problems

10/09/2013 HYDE PARK, MA A school bus stopped to pick up students along Neponset Valley Parkway (cq) in Hyde Park. Boston Public School buses were on the roads again following yesterday's strike. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Communities outside of Boston, as well as in the city, are contending with difficulties in school bus transportation.

Boston’s school busing woes have extended into the suburbs, where the school system’s transportation contractor has lured away drivers, creating scheduling nightmares for schools beyond the city’s borders.

Just before the start of Labor Day weekend, more than two dozen bus drivers for suburban districts defected to Transdev, the out-of-state transportation corporation that oversees Boston’s school bus fleet and its approximately 750 drivers, according to interviews with local bus companies.

Among them: Eastern Bus in Somerville, which provides transportation for a number of suburban districts, lost 18 drivers to Transdev before the holiday. Nine of those drivers worked in Newton, representing almost a quarter of that city’s 40 school bus drivers.

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Local Motion, which is headquartered in Braintree and Newton, said it lost eight drivers to Transdev right before Labor Day. Local Motion serves many private schools in the Boston area.

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Last Friday — four days after school opened in Newton — school officials alerted families by e-mail about “severe shortages of bus drivers” and asked them to be patient as they worked to remedy the situation, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by the Globe. The e-mail added that parents would be notified about any significant delays on routes.

“Eastern Bus is actively working to bring in backup drivers from other school districts as well as hire new, qualified drivers,” the e-mail said. “We are working very closely with Eastern to ensure consistent service for Newton students. However, as they work to address this shortage, students riding our buses may experience delays or gaps in routes.”

Assistant Superintendent Liam Hurley said Tuesday that some Newton buses were running 10 or 15 minutes late. He said the school system issued the e-mail after experiencing a surge in phone calls after the school year began about late buses and routine issues, like family requests for different bus stops or bus passes.

He said the last-minute loss of drivers was a challenge.

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“We have to deal with it the best we can,” he said. “I don’t want to begrudge anyone for getting opportunity they want.”

Local bus companies said that while they can compete on wages with Transdev, their small operations don’t allow them to offer the same level of benefits, especially for health insurance.

The defection of drivers brings new light to concerns raised in the past two weeks by the Boston school bus drivers union and Mayor Martin J. Walsh about a potential shortage of drivers in Boston.

Last week, the union issued a flier that said a shortage of drivers contributed to 45 routes having no drivers assigned to them. A week earlier, Walsh, expressing frustration over late buses and uncovered routes for charter schools that began their school year early, levied some blame on Transdev for not hiring enough drivers.

“You have the whole summer to figure out exactly how many drivers need to be hired and how many spots need to be filled, and then it seems like they wait until the week of, and all of a sudden we don’t have enough drivers,” Walsh said at the time.

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The extent of the driver shortage facing Transdev and the school system remains unclear because Boston school officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions from the Globe about the problem. Officials won’t say how many bus routes had no drivers assigned to them prior to the start of the school year.

Initially, school officials blamed the busing problems at the charter schools on “unexpected driver absences” and for two days released related data. But the school system abruptly stopped sharing that information with the public after Walsh made his comments on the last-minute hiring.

Transdev and the drivers union have been locked in prolonged contract negotiations, and the union has threatened to take its issues to the picket line if its members cannot get a fair contract.

Interim Superintendent Laura Perille refused an interview request Tuesday.

In a statement, the school system said: “The Boston Public Schools (BPS) Transportation Department, its vendor who employs the bus drivers, Transdev, and the bus drivers’ union (United Steelworkers Local 8751), continue to work together to improve on-time performance. Contract negotiations between the parties are ongoing.”

Transdev could not be reached for comment.

The school system, however, released on-time performance data for Monday and Tuesday, saying each day represented an improvement over the previous year. Some 80 percent of buses arrived at school on time Monday, and 71 percent did so on Tuesday, the first day of kindergarten.

On Monday afternoon, 82 percent of buses arrived at school on time for dismissal.

Some parents plan to present their frustrations over late buses and uncovered routes to the Boston School Committee Wednesday, at its first meeting in two months. The School Committee is scheduled to talk about the contract negotiations — behind closed doors.

Andrew Berg, whose son attends third grade at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, said he is not surprised by the last-minute hiring. His son did not arrive home until 90 minutes after his scheduled drop-off after the first day of school. And as Berg followed the bus on a “Where’s My School Bus” app, it appeared the driver was lost as the bus criss-crossed Dorchester. Berg didn’t know if the driver was new.

“He definitely didn’t know where he was going,” Berg said. “He looked confused.”

He added, “Nobody is being sufficiently transparent.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.