Wake County says its school bus service is getting better. Some parents aren’t so sure.

Wake County Schools produces video to recruit school bus drivers

Check out the recruiting video produced by Wake County Schools as they make a big push to hire school bus drivers for the rapdidly approaching school year.
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Check out the recruiting video produced by Wake County Schools as they make a big push to hire school bus drivers for the rapdidly approaching school year.

Wake County is touting that school bus service is getting better, but some parents aren’t so thrilled with what their children are getting.

School bus service hit an all-time low in 2012 in Wake County, when thousands of students were getting to and from school late on a regular basis. The complaints triggered several changes, including a reorganization of the transportation department, that school leaders say have now led to shorter bus rides, more buses arriving on time and fewer concerns from families about bus service.

“Those of you who have been on the board either during our unique opening in 2012 ... or the couple that came on to the board within very close proximity to it ... we’re in a very different place today than we were then,” David Neter, Wake’s chief operating officer, told school board members last week.

But some Wake parents disagree that bus service is better, especially compared to last school year.

“Definitely worse,” tweeted Becky Shermer, a Wake parent. “Our route is longer than ever.”

The start of the 2012-13 school year saw what Neter called a “perfect storm” as Wake dealt with issues such as an outdated transportation organizational structure and a new assignment plan that added 13,200 miles of bus mileage a day. The complaints contributed to the firing of former Superintendent Tony Tata.

Wake would go on to make a number of changes, such as changing who draws up bus routes and how families request bus service. Wake also changed bus routes and stops to compensate with how a shortage of drivers meant the 75,000 riders had to be packed into fewer buses each day.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Neter said. “It happened over years. One year we made slight improvements and the next year we made some more improvements.”

Neter pointed to how 97 percent of Wake’s buses were on time in the morning on the first day of traditional-calendar schools in August. It rose to 99.7 percent on the fifth day of classes. Wake tries to get students to school between 15-30 minutes before classes start.

In contrast, only 62 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school buses were on time in the morning on the first day. Wake is the only school district in North Carolina bigger than Charlotte-Mecklenburg, but CMS operates more school buses.

“Charlotte didn’t quite have the same start of the year that we did,” Neter said last week. “They actually had a horrible start.”

Neter said people who think Wake increases its on-time percentage by making bus ride times longer are wrong.

This school year, 86.42 percent of Wake bus riders have ride times of 30 or less minutes. That’s compared to less than 84 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

The percentage of Wake bus riders with ride times of 31 to 60 minutes and more than 91 minutes has dropped in recent years while Neter said it’s “stayed flat” for those with ride times of 61 to 90 minutes.

“Over the last several years of history, we are not seeing a trend of increasing ride times,” he said.

Neter also pointed to how the temporary call center created to handle questions from the public has seen a steady decline in calls. It’s gone from 28,105 tickets during the first 20 days of traditional-calendar schools in the 2015-16 school year to 15,461 tickets this school year.

Some families are happier with bus service now.

“Service is better this year,” tweeted Wendy Reinhart, a Raleigh parent. “Bus is more timely and route is shorter.”

But other Wake families are definitely not happy. Tara Leibert, a Wake parent, tweeted that she now carpools with four other families rather than have her child wait to catch a 5:45 a.m. bus.

Complaints are especially vocal from families whose children are impacted by “shared runs,” a practice Wake began using in 2015 to deal with the driver shortage.

In a shared run, Neter said, a bus driver picks up students who are farthest from a school and gets them to the campus 30 minutes before the start of classes. The driver then does a quick run to pick up riders who live closer to the school. The order is reversed in the afternoon.

Students on the first part of the shared run have to get up earlier in the morning.

Wake started with 39 shared runs at 14 schools in 2015. It’s now 208 runs at 43 schools.

“They’ve doubled up our route with another farther away, doubles the time it takes to get home for probably about two months or so,” tweeted Angela Davis-Williams, a Raleigh parent.

School officials say there are still some things they know they have to do a better job with, including continuing to improve efforts to recruit and retain bus drivers.

Wake launched a big recruitment campaign, allowing the district to start the school year with 749 bus drivers compared to 730 last school year. Wake had 881 drivers in 2014.

But Wake school officials say that it’s been a challenge retaining the drivers they’ve recruited.

One way Wake could try to get more drivers is to raise the starting salary from $13.11 an hour to $15 an hour, which Neter said would cost $4 million to $5 million, Charlotte-Mecklenburg raised starting salaries to $15 an hour to get enough drivers to improve bus service this school year.

Currently, Neter said a full-time starting Wake school bus driver makes $17,043 annually compared to a full-time GoTriangle bus driver who starts at $15 an hour and makes $31,250 annually.

Wake is also looking to improve the specialized transportation services that it provides to nearly 5,000 children who ride vehicles driven by companies hired by the district. This group includes pre-kindergarten students, homeless students and students with special needs who can’t ride a regular yellow school bus.

While there are still issues to address, Neter said the school district should look back at how transportation has improved since 2012.

“I think you’ll see we’ve greatly improved over the years,” Neter said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.