School bus driver shortage triggers last-minute scramble despite early red flags

The Department of Education is facing criticism for its handling of a bus driver shortage that will affect students on Maui. Always Investigating has uncovered the extent to which Kauai will also be affected, and how a bus-contract overhaul provided many red flags this day could come.

We previously told you that certain Maui routes would be consolidated or suspended, and students at the schools with suspended routes would be offered county bus passes. Today we dug deeper and learned a similar situation may play out on Kauai. and we learned why it’s not so easy to just hire more drivers.

The DOE is in the middle of overhauling what used to be a $72 million-a-year bus contract cost, down to a $60 million annual system by splitting islands into pies with multiple vendors getting pieces.

On Maui that led to wage and hiring competition that left one newcomer short staffed, and the DOE having to circle back. It’s not yet resolved, and parents and students are caught in the middle.

No. of bus riders on suspended Maui routes*

  • Lahainaluna High: 161
  • Baldwin High: 78
  • Iao Intermediate: 144

Total: 383

No. of bus riders on consolidated Maui, Kauai routes

  • 5 routes on Maui will be consolidated impacting 150 students from Maui High
  • 4 routes on Kauai will be consolidated impacting 120 students from Eleele, Waimea Canyon Middle, and Waimea High

*As of last-known signups

Three Maui schools with suspended routes will impact nearly 400 students: Lahainaluna High with 161, Baldwin High with 78, and Iao Intermediate with 144. Some parents are outraged.

“I was quite infuriated by the lack of communication of how this came out. It’s hard to figure this out with such short notice,” said the mother of a student at Lahainaluna High School. “I have to come up with a plan B to figure out how to make sure my kids get to school on time.”

Five routes on Maui will also be consolidated, affected 150 Maui High students. Now, Always Investigating has learned another 120 students at three Kauai schools — Eleele, Waimea Canyon Middle and Waimea High — will have route consolidations.

A shortage of drivers with commercial driver’s licenses is to blame.

“This is something that is unexpected, so we’re working through it,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, Department of Education spokeswoman. “There’s no way we could have predicted a situation like this.”

But we’ve learned there were red flags about hiring challenges as early as last year when the DOE was finalizing bids for Kauai and Maui routes for this fall, and it was disclosed in bid documents and procurement analysis that hiring on Maui would be a major challenge.

Roberts Hawaii used to have the most Maui routes, but that got split with Ground Transport Inc., which was an Oahu operator before that. Roberts protested, but Ground Transport still had to set up and staff up.

“The award was given in December. They purchased their vehicles in January, and normally when you purchase, your notice to proceed means go ahead purchase your equipment, start looking for your drivers, your management, your real estate,” said Percy Higashi with Roberts Hawaii.

But the hiring pace didn’t pan out and the DOE reached out to Roberts Hawaii in early July.

“I received a call from the chairman of the Board of Education asking for an immediate meeting that day,” Higashi said. “They basically said they were short 30 drivers on Maui and 20 on Kauai, so we said we would like to offer assistance, but please tell us how and please tell us early enough so we can gear up.”

Negotiations started, but stalled over price and duration. Roberts Hawaii wanted two Maui routes back with a 7-year deal plus a 3-year option at its bid rates, plus wage and benefit differentials of about $800,000 for the Lahainaluna route. Higashi says the DOE came back offering only Lahainaluna for two years.

“So we basically thought about it and said basically what you’re really doing is you’re giving the two years for our competitor to be able to hire all the drivers he wants for the state, so we’ll decline that offer,” Higashi said. “I think we’ve given the DOE every opportunity to try to fix this before school starts.”

“I knew that the bus contract had changed because I heard that from the school when I went to register my kids,” the Maui mother told Always Investigating, “but I did not know that it would affect to this degree of not having a bus at all.”

“Some parents feel this is very short notice when the DOE had some indications way early on that trouble was ahead. Why not tell parents sooner?” Always Investigating asked Dela Cruz.

“At this stage, it comes down to a lot of paperwork, negotiations,” she said. “We’re unable to meet their (Roberts Hawaii’s) demands and so the DOE just can’t come up with the funds to meet what they’re asking for, so we need to do what’s the best thing we can do, and that’s work with our current vendor and try the best that we can to get these drivers ready for the school year.”

“We’re here to help but someone has to call us,” Higashi said. “We would like to be treated equitably.”

Meanwhile, the DOE reached out to Maui County to help coordinate bus passes on public transportation, but the mayor’s spokesman said in a statement that: “The mayor spoke with DOE yesterday about how our buses are already full in the morning and we don’t have the capacity to handle all their students. The students are certainly welcome to catch the Maui Bus but we can’t throw anyone off the bus to make room and we can’t go over our passenger limit for safety reasons.”

“They’ve let us know that just because they’re offering this assistance for the bus passes does not guarantee a seat,” Dela Cruz said.

Roberts Hawaii also happens to run the Maui County bus system.

“It is full. Either students will get on and regular citizens who are getting to their workplace will not get on,” Higashi said. “In most of the routes, there’s an hour gap, so if you miss one, you’ll be late for school.”

“Can you just add more buses into that fleet to accommodate additional students?” Always Investigating asked.

“I think they’ll have to redirect somewhere else to move vehicles,” Higashi said. “The county would do that.”

Meanwhile, the DOE is scrambling to get information on other routes together for Maui and Kauai students who will have some kind of merged-route service.

“Right now, we’re working with the complex area superintendents to make sure that we can inform the families in the affected areas,” Dela Cruz said. “We apologize for just a week’s notice. We’re hoping that you know what we’re dealing with.”

The DOE says it will be reaching out to affected families by phone through each school principal, and will post consolidation route details online when they’re resolved.

Ground Transport did not yet respond for comment on its Maui staffing, and other Kauai vendors referred questions to the DOE.

Always Investigating asked the DOE, looking back was it too ambitious of a timeline to re-contract Maui and Kauai bus services in the same year essentially that the services were to be due that coming fall?

“At the end of the day, we have an obligation to our students but also the legislature to deliver good bus service in an affordable manner,” Dela Cruz said. “The DOE was caught six years ago in a situation we do not want to be in again, and that’s where it was $72 million in bus transportation. We’re now at $60 million. Is all that we tried to do, is it worth it, if that’s the question? It is worth it if we are able to be more efficient and more effective at what we can do. Right now, this is a hiccup. We’re still going to need to figure out how to ensure continuous service throughout the school year and years after that.”

As of last school year, 14,004 Oahu students rode the school bus, but the neighbor islands served far more – 17,449 – combined: Hawaii Island 7,877; Maui 5,595, Kauai 3,267; and Molokai 700.

“It’s not as easy for children on neighbor islands to just walk to school in some communities,” Dela Cruz said. “They need the student transportation, also some parents may not be driving in that direction to the school.”

Always Investigating asked will there be any changes in how the bus procurement works and how the contract administration is done to prevent shortages in the future?

“I think this is a lesson learned for the department,” Dela Cruz said. “They’re going to take a look at it and work more diligently going forward, but this problem in front of us we want to solve as soon as we can.”

Bus contracts for Maui, Kauai
For the period of July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2024

Maui: Cluster 1 – Makawao $3,551,040 Robert’s Hawaii
Maui: Cluster 2 – Baldwin $1,439,640 Ground Transport
Maui: Cluster 3 – Lahaina $1,703,160 Ground Transport
Maui: Cluster 4 – Maui $2,362,320 Ground Transport
Kauai: Cluster 1 – Waimea $1,190,160 Yamaguchi Bus Service
Kauai: Cluster 2 – Kapaa $1,587,780 Akita Enterprises
Kauai: Cluster 3 – Kauai $1,334,880 Akita Enterprises

Bus contracts for Oahu

Cluster 1 – North Shore $6,104,700 Robert’s Hawaii
Cluster 2 – Central Oahu $14,678,136 Robert’s Hawaii
Cluster 3 – Central Oahu $14,004,900 Robert’s Hawaii
Cluster 4 – Honolulu $23,199,894 Robert’s Hawaii
Cluster 5 – Halawa, Aiea, Pearl City $13,068,000 Ground Transport
Cluster 6 – Ewa Plain $19,946,700 Ground Transport
Cluster 7 – Leeward Coast $13,210,200 Ground Transport

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