A bump in pay has done little to curb the bus driver shortage which has plagued Wayne County Public Schools for several years.
The issue has now carried over into the new year as the school system remains a dozen or more drivers short of fully staffed.
Officials say that more is being done to address the ongoing driver shortage, but stringent job requirements and a lengthy training process means there is no overnight solution.
Now, one week into the 2017-18 school year, some Wayne County parents are already voicing their frustrations on issues ranging from long wait times to misplaced children.
Shannon Jones said she first began noticing issues with her children's transportation about three years ago when both of her children attended Spring Creek Elementary.
Jones said she ran into problems then, early in the year.
"That morning, the first day of school, they were brought to school and told what bus they were supposed to be on, and that afternoon we got a call from one of the teachers wanting to know 'are you coming to get your kids?'" she said. "We get down there to the school, and come to find out that the bus hadn't even gotten there yet."
And then last year, Jones said that her children waited an average of 45 minutes to an hour to get on the bus after school.
She now sends her children off each morning to Spring Creek Elementary and Spring Creek Middle schools.
This year, changes to the Spring Creek Middle school schedule ---- the school opens and closes 15 minutes earlier than it did a year ago ---- were supposed to help alleviate the problem, but Jones said the bus situation has so far been "nothing but a mess."
The schedule changes ---- shifts were also made at Rosewood High, Eastern Wayne Elementary and Carver Elementary ---- were designed to provide time between the multiple routes drivers must run in the district's tiered bus system. But neither those changes nor financial boosts from the state have been able to compensate for a deficit of drivers, which WCPS transportation director Robert Lee said has not improved this year.
"The state actually allocated $16 million this year to put toward bus driver salaries, and what we did with our share of that was give all of our bus drivers a $1-per-hour raise, which is fairly significant," Lee said. "It has not really gotten better. I'd say we're short around 12 or 13 drivers right now."
Three or four of those vacant spots are in the Spring Creek area, Lee said, where Jones' children attend school.
For her, the issues with the transportation system go beyond wait times. This year, Jones said, her daughter's first day of school went even less smoothly than it did three years ago.
"When my daughter got off of the bus that morning, she got off of the right bus, (No.) 518," she said.
"Another teacher stuck her and several other kids with the wrong sticker on her shirt, and they put her on bus (No.) 497. I did not find my child until after 6 o'clock that day."
Lee said that when a child ends up on the wrong bus, it is usually because someone at the school put them there. If the student is too young to provide directions to their home, the protocol is to return them to the school. That is where Jones said she later found her daughter, crying hysterically.
Lee said there is no excuse for episodes like that. He said he hopes that pending upgrades to EDULOG, a software system the district uses to plan and assign bus routes, will help prevent them in the future.
"We have an upgrade to that system already paid for, it's been paid for by [the Department of Public Instruction] so we're just waiting on them to come out and install it," he said. The upgraded system would give transportation information managers a clearer view of how bus routes are run in the county, he said, by giving them a Google Maps-like view of county roads.
Of course, those upgrades do not address the hard fact that WCPS does not have enough drivers to run those routes. Board of Education initiatives like the pay raises and a commercial drivers license requirement for some new hires will help, Lee said, but not for some time.
That is because becoming a bus driver is often a long, exacting process with high standards. For instance, in Wayne County, a single DWI charge on one's driving record disqualifies them from ever serving as a bus driver, Lee said.
Even with a spotless record, becoming a driver can take months. By Department of Motor Vehicles law, a prospective bus driver must attain a CDL permit before ever getting behind the wheel of a bus, a process which can take weeks of classes and costly fees for the student. After that, the DMV will only allow up to three people on the bus at a time during instruction, and there is only one certified instructor for Wayne County, Lee said.
The school system regularly holds CDL classes for prospective bus drivers. Forty-eight people attended the last one in mid-August, and it would take around two months to get them through training. Those with medical issues have to enter a medical review program, which would further extend the process by months.
"We've gotten a lot of support from the school board, they've gotten this initiative started," Lee said. "It just takes time. I can't just grab anyone off the street and put them on a bus."
In the meantime, Jones said, the school system should look at consolidating elementary and middle school bus routes, something which Lee said the county avoids due to bullying concerns. Jones said she regularly sees buses drive down her street from the middle and high schools. Yet, her young daughter still arrives home and crosses the street as the sun starts to go down ---- or has already gone down in the winter ---- around 5 p.m.
"It makes more sense to have these pre-K, first, second-grade kids home earlier. It's not fair to any kid to have this tiered system," she said. "She still has to come home and do her work in the evening, and it would be the same way with any other student if they switched it around."