Darryn Ruth’s complaints about the school bus service used by the Pendleton School District starts at the bus stop, but it doesn’t end there.
Every morning, Ruth said he takes his young granddaughter to the school bus stop at Southwest Frazer Avenue and Fourth Street, in the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce parking lot.
The stop is near the tank where recreational vehicles can deposit their sewage. Concerned about the health risks, he sought a meeting with the proper authorities to discuss the bus stop and other complaints.
Despite meeting with officials from the school district and its contractor, Mid Columbia Bus Co., Ruth felt that they weren’t responding to his concerns and took to Facebook to solicit complaints from other parents before he took them to the Pendleton School Board on Monday.
Ruth said his posts on various pages garnered 1,800 interactions.
While Ruth’s comments were restricted to three minutes under board rules, the comments left under the post touched on similar things: late buses, long bus routes, and bullying on the bus going unchecked.
Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch said the district is sympathetic to parents’ concerns about the bus system, adding that a poor experience on the bus can lead kids to have a tough day at school.
But Fritsch attributed most of the problems to Midco’s shortage of bus drivers, an issue that the company has publicized over the past few years.
A lack of bus drivers means routes must be consolidated and cover more stops, leading to kids spending more time waiting for and on the bus.
An accompanying lack of substitute drivers means the problem is only further compounded if a driver calls out.
Matt Yoshioka, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said drivers are now transporting larger loads of kids than before, making it more difficult to manage students while they drive.
Yoshioka declined to call student behavior on the bus bullying, preferring to refer to it as “mistreatment.” But the district has responded by sometimes placing staff members on bus routes to help manage students while the driver focuses on the road.
Yoshioka defended Midco, saying the company was doing everything it could to bolster its staff but was suffering from a low-unemployment labor market that sees potential drivers looking elsewhere for opportunities.
For its part, Midco is literally under new management.
Chuck Moore, Midco’s regional vice president, said he arrived on the job this week and a new area manager was hired in September.
Additionally, Midco brought in a recruiter to address its driver shortage and have six drivers-in-training that the company is hoping to convert into new employees.
Moore said they welcome complaints or concerns, and if a parent has a complaint about an incident that happened on-bus, the company will check video footage and address their concerns.
Even if the school district were to part ways with Midco, district officials say some of the other options aren’t significantly better.
Yoshioka said Midco is often the only bidder when the district puts out a request for proposal for transportation services, and the next closest school bus company is based in Spokane.
And Fritsch considered the school district operating its own bus fleet a “last resort” because of its multimillion-dollar start-up cost.
As for the bus stop on the corner of Frazer and Fourth, Yoshioka and Midco officials said they’re in the process of moving the stop away from the tank.