Last-minute meeting fails to resolve Maui school bus crisis, students still stuck in the middle

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, the Department of Education, and one of Hawaii’s largest school bus providers met Friday to try to fix the Valley Isle school bus crisis, but to no avail.

It’s a story Always Investigating has been following.

The problem is still at a stalemate, with veteran Oahu company Ground Transport defending its new Maui territory in the midst of its staffing shortfall, while the displaced competitor, Roberts Hawaii, tells the DOE and now the mayor that they could handle a handed-over contract.

Students without rides or without certainty on their routes are stuck in the middle.

Some Maui bus routes have been suspended or consolidated in areas where Ground Transport said they don’t have enough qualified drivers yet.

Click here for the latest on route suspensions and consolidations.

Arakawa and several representatives of the state DOE and Roberts Hawaii met on Maui Friday afternoon to see if Roberts Hawaii could take over.

“I think one of the main points the DOE was making was basically communicating to us that even if we help them out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday on a daily basis with no contract, that it might even be them interfering with the current contractor,” said Chad Iwamoto, vice president of Roberts Hawaii. “The answer we’re trying to get to them is when is it considered a breach of contract? When is Ground Transport breaching its contract? And basically they’re scared of any liability potential.”

“We spoke and brainstormed with Mayor Arakawa on solutions in hopes of finding a solution to prevent this situation,” DOE Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson said in a statement, “however, there are too many legal obligations for outside parties to engage. It’s disappointing, but this is the reality.”

The DOE had referred parents to use the county’s bus system in the interim but the mayor said earlier this week they are already running at capacity.

“I had hoped that with the county in the middle to mediate, we could bring both sides together to find a solution,” Arakawa said Friday afternoon. “Right now I just want to make it clear to parents that our Maui Bus cannot handle an influx of hundreds of students with a couple of our 30-passenger buses. Barring a resolution before Tuesday, I strongly urge parents to please make other arrangements for their children to get to school.”

Always Investigating asked if the county considered temporarily expanding its service, which is subcontracted to Roberts Hawaii, near the affected schools. A county spokesperson said the focus of the meeting was to mediate between the DOE and Roberts.

Ground Transport, which has a large Oahu operation but is new to Maui this year, was not included in Friday’s meeting.

DOE bid results gave Ground Transport the official contract award in January, but Roberts Hawaii protested well into the spring, in part saying a new vendor couldn’t fulfill such a large award area so quickly.

“Why not? We’re not talking about a contractor that has no experience in the industry,” said Ground Transport president Louis Gomes. “Ground Transport has been here for many years. Yes, we’re new to Maui, but it’s no different than when Roberts entered the market there. They were new.”

Gomes says they also faced hurdles when most of the drivers from the 71 routes Ground Transport took over from Roberts Hawaii were kept on Roberts’ payroll.

“All along they’ve been saying, ‘Don’t worry we’re going to get the routes back. Ground Transport is going to be out of the business,’” Gomes said. “These are the things their employees were reporting to us. I want to use the word undermining, basically, of our hiring over there.”

“There already is a shortage of drivers statewide and having 71 drivers to deploy to maybe the neighbor islands or to use in the Maui public (transportation), to use on our tours and transfers, we can use them all,” said Roberts Hawaii president Percy Higashi. “We’re holding on to our 71 drivers because they want to stay with us. The ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) is so valuable that they receive money every year by just staying with us. That’s not something they’re going to get with any other company.”

Ground Transport tells us it doesn’t intend to give up on the contract and that the staffing is a temporary problem. Company officials say they’re most of the way to the finish line of what’s required to fully serve the DOE.

“We have several applicants that are currently going through the process right now, and it’s around 15 to 20 of them, but they don’t have the CDL license or they have to be upgraded, you’re talking three, three and a half weeks,” Gomes said.

Always Investigating asked, will that group then satisfy all the drivers the company needs for the school year?

“Absolutely,” Gomes said.

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