School bus issues improve for many riders
Four months into the school year a reportedly rough start to the school busing season appears to have smoothed out — just in time for potential winter weather challenges.
Christie Thomas, of West Linn, said her first-grade son, Riley, missed breakfast at Willamette Primary three mornings during the first week of school. And in the afternoon, his bus was often late returning home.
"It was frustrating because I would stand outside for 25-35 minutes waiting for him to get home, which was difficult for me to do because I was very pregnant with twins," said Thomas, adding that issues with school buses started getting better by October. "There have been a few days the bus is running late since then, but that's about it. It's way better now."
Other families — in West Linn and Wilsonville — have experienced delays, a lack of communication from schools and First Student — the school bus transportation provider — and missed routes.
"As a new school with many new routines and procedures, we did experience some busing delays at the beginning of the school year, but we've seen continued improvement as we've ironed out some kinks," said Annikke Olson, principal at Meridian Creek Middle School. "The reality of school buses is that unique circumstances will always create delays here and there, but Meridian Creek has experienced fewer delays as communication with the bus company has improved throughout the school year."
Jay Brock, First Student spokesman, said the biggest challenge with the buses this year was the shortage of bus drivers.
"Not using (this) as an excuse, but it's a challenge to recruit new drivers," Brock said. "It can take four to six weeks to get someone through the hiring pipeline."
Brock referred to it as the "crux of situation." He added that especially when there are substitute drivers or new drivers being hired during the school year, there is a learning curve.
West Linn-Wilsonville District Communications Director Andrew Kilstrom said that things got so difficult, some people from the First Student office were driving at the beginning of the school year because of the lack of drivers.
"They had a true shortage," Kilstrom said.
Not only was the WL-WV School District short on bus drivers at the beginning of the school year — Brock said they are fully staffed now — the district had different routes the drivers had to learn. With the addition of the new Meridian Creek, the school boundaries changed.
"The boundary changes for the middle school level were fairly significant. We have for quite a few years had choice zones for primary (but not middle school) where you might live in one (neighborhood school zone) but could choose to go to another one, and it helps a lot in balancing enrollment for all the schools," WL-WV Director of Operations Tim Woodley said.
"It also brings continuity in service for a family who's used to going to a particular school if they have siblings or that sort of thing ... so choice zones have been a good way to transition significant changes in enrollment patterns. So we took a step and created some choice zones for the middle school level also."
Another change to the schools this year was aligning start and end times — primary starts first and ends first, then high schools, then middle schools.
"One wrong turn during the day for a bus can set you back later in the day. If your route is to Sunset and something happened, and then your route is to the high school, you might be late for the high school," Woodley said. "It is one of the most complex parts of the public school system, logistically, because it's got to happen perfectly every single day. ... There's no recovery."
This is why WL-WV schools increased communication to parents this school year. Secretaries in the schools are in communication with First Student and send email alerts out when a bus is expected to be delayed.
But Thomas said she didn't always receive those messages.
"One morning I received an email that the bus was behind, but that was at 7:46 a.m. after his bus was 16 minutes late," Thomas said. "I only received an email once and that was the first week of school."
On the other hand, Viviana Stewart, of West Linn, has experienced quite the opposite. She said during the 2016-17 school year, there was a lack of communication with snow routes and bus delays, and there was not a constant bus driver.
"Our experience with the school bus has been a tremendous improvement over last year — the timeliness and consistency of the driver — he runs his route like a Swiss clock," said Stewart, whose third-grade son goes to Sunset Primary.
Octavia Merrill, of West Linn, who also has a child at Sunset, agrees.
"Last year was unpredictable and (the) bus driver was changed continuously," Merrill said. "This year complete opposite. One solid bus driver who arrives on time and sometimes a little early."
But after winter break that same bus driver, who Stewart and Merrill were fond of, got a new job.
"I'm so disappointed," said Merrill after hearing the news.
Woodley and Kilstrom said a lot of bus delays are also caused by natural hurdles like traffic, construction and even routing data — information on which students will be riding the bus.
When the school boundaries shifted, the school district was relying on parents with children in a choice zone to communicate which school they were attending and if their child would ride the bus. This heavily affects the routing data.
"There was this time of adjustment of whether the parents would be driving their kid to school or whether they would ride the bus, so I think it probably was a natural thing," Woodley said.
And now as the winter weather has set in, Woodley and Kilstrom encourage families to visit their website,www.wlwv.k12.or.us/domain/49, and sign up for Flash Alert so they can be up-to-date with potential snow route changes, how the weather will affect the buses and for more information.