- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

Area school systems beset by a severe shortage of bus drivers and rampant absenteeism are struggling to transport students to and from class as the new academic year stretches into another week.

While jurisdictions are doubling up runs, consolidating routes, recruiting administrators to drive buses, delaying bell times and hiring at a furious pace, some deal with absentee rates as high as 20 percent on some days.

District of Columbia school employee Maria Bazquez sits at her desk and fields complaints from parents wondering where their children's bus is.

"They curse at me," she said. "They are very angry."

A large board next to her lists the buses that were late and the routes that were doubled, or even tripled, because 70 out of 470 drivers were absent from work that day, as on most days.

"We are hiring as fast as we are firing," said transportation director Al Winder. "We are constantly playing catch-up. But even though it's bad, it's better than it's ever been. Last year was a total disaster."

Systems are recruiting aggressively at malls, fairs and even the National Council of Negro Women's Black Family Reunion celebration on the Mall over the weekend.

At the same time, bus drivers are complaining about low pay, lack of benefits and respect, and even violence.

A bus driver at the new Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince George's County, Md., was punched in the face last Tuesday by a student, in what transportation sources say was retaliation for breaking up a fight on a school bus last week.

The attacker, who had his face covered, has not been caught, transportation sources said.

Transportation officials say the attack is not unusual and that bus drivers often contend with threats and fighting between students.

"What is really scary is that this is happening in the beginning of the year," said one Prince George's bus driver who declined to be named. "This stuff usually happens close to school getting out."

The problem with transporting children to school isn't likely to end soon.

Fairfax County, Va., has about 30 runs that lack drivers, forcing school office workers to take over some routes, said Linda Farbry, director of transportation.

"We need to hire about 100 drivers, including 70 substitutes," she said. "We are losing people every day, but we have 46 drivers in the pipeline that aren't ready yet. The turnover is constant."

She estimated that absenteeism is about 10 to 15 percent.

Prince George's County schools still need to hire about 100 drivers for their 1,097 routes, said Anthony Liberatore, assistant superintendent for student services.

Other transportation personnel are manning buses until more drivers are found.

The school system has eliminated certain bus routes, but some parents complain that their children now have to walk a mile and a half to school in areas without sidewalks.

"I learned they cut the route the Friday before school started," said Patricia Yorkman, whose 5-year-old son began kindergarten at Fort Washington Forest Elementary last week. "There is no crossing guard, and he would have to walk up steep hills and cross a dangerous intersection. I am driving him these days until the service I used as a child 30 years ago gets reinstated."

But Mr. Liberatore says consolidating routes is standard practice, and that the school system has taken measures to ensure the safety of children.

"The community and the school have to do their part," he said. "Together we can work this out."

Route consolidations involve 13 schools and affect 179 students, he said. Many parents have petitioned school officials for reinstatement of their routes.

In the District of Columbia, which has long struggled to transport its special-education students, school officials have decided to try something other jurisdictions have considered: staggered bell times.

On Monday, 500 children will go to school later at three schools. That will allow 40 routes to be eliminated, Mr. Winder said.

Mr. Winder said he plans to delay more school start times on Sept. 25, eliminating another 50 routes.

"We have been doubling about 50 routes a day and about 20 aren't going out at all," he added. "This is impacting several hundred kids who aren't getting to school or getting there so late that it is a nonproductive day for them."

The bottom line, Mr. Winder said, is getting people to come to work every day or "it will be dicey all school year."

"We haven't been able to afford incentives or bonuses," he said. "But the economy is so good that people have alternate choices. It's not a pay issue, it's a hard job. Many people don't want to do it with the hours and the stress."

That was the case with one Prince George's County driver who had finally had enough.

While driving students home from Largo High School on Wednesday, she grew tired of the cursing and yelling. She pulled up to Forestville High School, turned to the students and said, "[Expletive] you, I quit," according to witnesses.

She then got off the bus, went into the school and told school officials the same thing, stranding more than 50 students.

"It took my daughter 1 and 1/2 hours to get home," said Oressa Cooper-Faulkner, whose ninth-grade daughter, Cashmere, walked through a forest to get home. "Anything could have happened to these kids."

School officials were unavailable for comment on the incident.

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