MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Public Schools says it paid its bus contractors for the pandemic school year, after claims the companies did not get the funding necessary to retain drivers.
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An MPS spokesperson provided this statement Friday:
"Milwaukee Public Schools compensated all bus contractors for 60%, or almost $8.2 million, of the remainder of the contractual agreements from the date of the unexpected school closure through the end of the 2020 - 21 school year. This was done despite companies not providing services to students nor was the district contractually obligated to do so. MPS does not directly pay bus drivers.”
The response came after the Wisconsin School Bus Association told TMJ4 News that they and several bus companies had warned MPS since last fall there would be a driver shortage if the district did not pay the companies. They also say, MPS statement is inaccurate.
"MPS' statement misstates the school year they paid bus contractors. MPS compensated bus contractors 60% of contracts to conclude the 2019-2020 school year. For the 2020-2021 school year, MPS paid nothing to contracted bus companies while they were closed."
The executive director said its members include six MPS bus contractors.
A statement from the Wisconsin School Bus Association reads:
"Wisconsin School Bus Association, along with several bus contracting companies, have been in contact with MPS administrators and school board committees since October 2020, informing them that there would be a bus driver shortage if the district continued to not fund these companies with state transportation funds they continued to receive. Drivers and staff were furloughed and displaced since COVID-19 began and forced to find other employment elsewhere while the district continued to be unsure of whether school would be able to re-open.
MPS chose not to pay their local bus contractors and drivers since the 2020-2021 school year started, when other districts throughout North America did. This had an overall negative ripple effect that was felt throughout the local community and economy in Wisconsin. Some drivers that were employed before the pandemic had no choice but to explore other career opportunities. This created a void in the number of drivers who are employed in the area.
MPS did not lose any funding and in fact will be slated to receive a total of $800M in Federal COVID-relief funds. (FOX6 story) Despite the adverse situation, bus contractors continued to wait and prepare as much as possible to safely serve the school district.
MPS’ 4-week turnaround to reopen schools gave a scarce amount of time for the bus companies to prepare for the routes and the reopening. MPS was informed by the companies that they would need 2 months to prepare for a reopening largely due to ensuring there would be enough drivers available. In addition, MPS did not provide route information until 3 days before the first day back. That expected turn-around was extremely challenging to ensure timely, safe transportation. It is our hope that MPS communicates and compensates the bus contracting companies in a better manner than previously.
All companies are currently hiring and in need of drivers for anyone interested in making a difference in children’s lives."
During a March 23 MPS school board meeting, MPS Superintendent Dr. Keith Posley told the board he needed a specific date to start sending students back to class so he could tell the bus companies. The board then voted to bring the first group of students back April 14.
Student Transportation of America told TMJ4 News on Thursday the district formally responded to the amended contract proposal April 7.
On Wednesday, TMJ4 News reported that an email from a Milwaukee Public Schools principal says more than 80 school buses and more than 160 school bus routes were canceled on its first day of in-person learning in 13 months.
During a special MPS school board work session Thursday night, Business & Transportation Services Director David Solik-Fifarek said they anticipated needing 360 buses and now says they are down to about 300. Solik-Fifarek said they had been regularly communicating with bus drivers from each of the companies as it is part of the reopening process.
"There’s a difference between maintaining regular communication and actually bringing them back," Solik-Fifarek said. "And so what ended up happening for last week was I'd say we anticipated about 80 percent retention, we probably got 60 to 70 percent retention of drivers. And again, that's attributed I think to the long layoff."
After dry runs on Monday and Tuesday, he said about five to ten drivers for each terminal who had committed over the phone indicated they would not be returning, so they had to consolidate.
Solik-Fifarek said he's confident the bus issues have been resolved and there won't be more problems next week when more students return.
"We’re going to be fine as it comes to the next grouping of people," Solik-Fifarek said.