Why CMS is struggling to get all of its buses to school on time

At 6:10 p.m. Tuesday, Michael Klueppel was on the phone with a reporter because he couldn’t reach anyone else.

His children, 5 and 7 years old, had gotten out of Waddell Language Academy almost three hours earlier. Even using the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus-tracking app, he couldn’t figure out where they were or why they were so late.

“No one picks up at the transportation (office). No one gives an update,” Klueppel said.

The bus, driven by a substitute driver, pulled up at 6:16 p.m., an hour and 41 minutes past the children’s scheduled drop-off time.

Six weeks ago, when CMS officials gave their back-to-school briefing, the district had 44 driver jobs left to fill in its fleet of almost 1,100 buses. Adam Johnson, who had just started work as transportation director, said the district had candidates lined up for September training, according to an August Observer story. He spoke hopefully about getting up to full staff quickly.

Now, a month into the school year, CMS has 69 driver openings. Drivers are leaving for higher-paying jobs, including with Charlotte’s CATS system, faster than CMS can recruit them, said spokeswoman Renee McCoy.

In a district that does more busing than any other in North Carolina, that means thousands of students are still getting to school and/or arriving home late.

McCoy said 92 percent of buses arrived at school on time Wednesday morning, the same rate reported Sept. 10, when the Observer asked about another parent’s complaint. That’s up from 62 percent of morning buses on time on the first day of school.

On Tuesday afternoon the on-time drop-off rate was 82 percent.

CMS did not respond to the Observer’s request for a tally of students who were late. But the district has almost 100,000 riders, which means 8 percent late getting to school could translate to about 8,000 students and 16 percent could mean 16,000 were late getting home. McCoy said the district can’t track how late those students were.

Klueppel, a German national who has lived in the United States for eight years, says he loves Waddell, a K-8 magnet school where his children are taught in both languages. He knows to expect some delays as a bus wends its way from the southwest Charlotte school to the family’s home in Ballantyne, near the South Carolina border, in afternoon traffic.

But Tuesday’s extreme lateness and his inability to get answers — his calls to the transportation number landed him on hold for more than half an hour, he said — spiked his anxiety. Could his children have been in a wreck?

Klueppel said he was relieved when the bus arrived but frustrated by the three hours his young children had spent getting home. “They can’t do their homework. They can’t learn. They can’t play,” he said.

Bernice Cutler, who has children at Randolph Middle School, reported frustration with late morning buses in mid-September.

“We’re on to week three now and still having problems,” she tweeted on Sept. 11. The magnet school starts classes at 9:15 a.m., but “as of 9:40 a.m. my kids’ bus still hasn’t arrived. I drove them an hour ago. The rest are missing math class for the 3rd day in a row.”

Cutler said Wednesday that her children’s bus is running on time now.

The driver shortage forces CMS to rely on substitutes who may not know the routes, and “means many drivers are covering additional routes all across the county,” McCoy said. Because CMS uses a tiered busing system, in which one bus may cover three or four runs each morning or afternoon, a delay at an early-start school can snowball by the time that bus starts making runs for schools like Waddell that have the latest start and dismissal times.

CMS drivers start at $12.87 an hour and work only when students have class. During the first four weeks of school, which were peppered with scheduled days off and unplanned hurricane closings, that meant only 15 working days for CMS drivers.

The CATS pay scale was not immediately available, but the city had a full-time job for a special transportation driver posted Thursday at $17.77 an hour. CATS drivers aren’t bound by a school calendar, which means they can count on a steadier paycheck.

“Many of our CMS drivers are making the choice to leave for those higher paying jobs,” McCoy said in an email to the Observer. “There are simply fewer workers who are interested and meet the background criteria for driving school buses. We conduct recruiting events across the county, and participate in on-going hiring events. ... The process takes about 54 days from hiring to getting behind the wheel on a route.”

McCoy said CMS leaders are “exploring ways” to increase driver pay, though such an increase wasn’t part of the 2018-19 budget.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms