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MPS responded to bus company's concerns over drivers 1 week before in-person learning resumed: Company

Posted at 4:28 PM, Apr 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-15 23:53:58-04

MILWAUKEE — Despite one bus company telling Milwaukee Public Schools they would need time to rehire laid-off bus drivers, the district responded to them on April 7, just one week before the first day of in-person learning.

TMJ4's Shaun Gallagher was the first to report that the company says they did not receive payment from MPS last year, even though up to $18 million was budgeted for this company in 2020. The School Board approved a contract extension for nine bus companies, totaling more than $53 million.

MORE COVERAGE: 'I can't do this every day': Parents scramble after more than 100 MPS school bus routes canceled

Because the company didn't receive money to retain drivers who had to be laid off, now the rehiring process is apparently a lengthy one.

Contract extensions for MPS Transportation partners
In June of 2020, MPS approved an option to extend a contract with nine bus companies. It set the ceiling for how much they could spend for services. One company says they didn't receive any of this money and were forced to layoff drivers.

Milwaukee Public Schools issued the following statement to TMJ4 News:

“MPS has resolved many of the transportation issues stemming from the first day of in-person learning. The district has contacted all affected families and schools through multiple outlets of communication. Families are encouraged to first contact their child’s school to verify the bus company made the stop. If problems persist, the district will work with both the bus company and the school to provide emergency services to students and families.”

A spokesperson for Student Transportation of America (STA) who affiliates with Dairyland/Lakeside School Bus Group, say after laying off its drivers due to the pandemic, they would need a "ramp-up period" in order to fulfill the services expected. They say MPS gave them 7 days notice.

STA issued the following statement:

Student Transportation of America affiliates Lakeside Buses of Wisconsin, Inc. (Lakeside) and Dairyland Buses, Inc. (Dairyland) have partnered with the Milwaukee Public School District (MPS) to provide safe and efficient transportation services for more than 40 years.

In late 2020, Lakeside and Dairyland had to close their facilities and lay off staff due to non-payment from the District. The lapsed payment support, which was needed to maintain readiness to return to service, also resulted in a halting of the companies’ transportation services contracts with MPS. Since then, both companies openly communicated to the District that resuming the contracts—and putting services in place for full operational readiness—would require a ramp-up period to rehire and retrain drivers, and maintain adequate transportation safety standards.

The District formally responded to Lakeside and Dairyland’s amended contract proposal on April 7.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about significant challenges for schools and other educational institutions all across the nation, Lakeside and Dairyland remain committed to working with the District to find the best possible busing solutions as it continues its phased return to in-person instruction.

As part of this effort, Lakeside and Dairyland respectfully acknowledge that the company’s top priority will continue to be an overall focus on passenger and operator safety.

To meet Lakeside’s and Dairyland’s extensive safety standards, as well as the District’s proposed timeline for reopening, we committed to providing 25 buses on the first planned day of instruction. Additional bus and driver resources will be made available through the spring as rehiring and retraining permit.

Lakeside and Dairyland remain in ongoing communication with the District regarding the return to in-person instruction and the logistical realities of restarting a busing program after such an extended operational lag. We remain optimistic that our organization will continue to serve the important transportation needs of Milwaukee Public Schools by rebuilding our driver staffing with safety as our number one priority.

An MPS spokesperson said Thursday night they were working on getting a response to the bus company's claim because they question its validity.

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 lay off."

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.

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.

The email, sent to TMJ4, notes school bus driver shortages as the reason for the route cancellation. Wednesday Kindergarten through 3rd-grade students attended class, marking the first day for in-person learning at MPS since the pandemic shut things down in March of 2020.

"The kids' bus was supposed to come at 8:23," Clarissa Smiter, a mother of three children at Burbank Elementary said. "It never came this morning. We waited on the porch until 9 and they never showed up."

"I thought the bus was going to pick her up," Marica Johnson, mother of a first-grader said. "No bus came and I had to bring her to school."

Johnson says she had to leave her job to drop her daughter off and pick her up today. While she wants her daughter to be physically in school, she says this won't be sustainable.

"I can't do this every day," Johnson said. "I have to be at work before they have to be at school. They have to be at school at 9 and I have to be at work at 7. There is no way I am going to be late for work every day if they don't get this bus situated."

"Teachers spent a lot of time yesterday on the phone with parents who were in tears," said MTEA President Amy Mizialko. "Trying to calm them down and listen to them and help them get organized for how will my child get to school now on Thursday and Friday and next week."

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