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Bus company with $69M contract fails some Philly students

Service for some Philadelphia students has been “a disaster.” Officials blame a national bus-driver shortage. Still, the firm that one family says has been late, absent or failed to show up dozens of time this year received part of a $69 million contract from the Philadelphia School District. The school system says it has legally warned the company it must fix service issues.

When the big yellow school bus rumbles up to Emma Hertzog's house, it's cause for celebration. It's doesn't happen every day.

Rita Hertzog, Emma's mother, loses count when she tries to tally the number of times her 8-year-old has been late or absent from school, or gotten home after dark.

There was the time they stood outside for an hour in the rain; the time Rita had to scramble midday to find a way home for Emma because the driver called out abruptly and the bus company had no backup plan; the time Emma didn't get home until 6:15 p.m., hours after her scheduled drop-off, her parents frantic when no one could tell them when their daughter would be home.

"This year has been a disaster," Rita Hertzog said. "There's been 20 no-shows, if not more. Maybe 30. Then, every day, there's a deviance of the scheduled pickup time for at least 15 minutes on either end, if not more."

By law, Emma, a second grader, is eligible for bus transportation to Independence Charter School in Center City because her East Mount Airy home is more than a mile and a half from her school. The company responsible for transporting her, Durham School Services, was recently awarded a three-year contract worth up to $69 million by the Philadelphia School District, despite service problems. Still, it has been legally warned by the school system that it must remedy its issues on some routes or face consequences.

School District and bus company officials responsible for the bus problem say the mess that plagues Emma and a number of other children is not isolated, that other children across the city -- and the country -- are struggling because of a national shortage of qualified school bus drivers. One called it an "epidemic."

The Philadelphia School District is charged with transporting all city children who qualify for rides, including those who attend charter and nonpublic schools.

In an email to Hertzog earlier this school year, Marvin Lee, the district's general manager for transportation, wrote that his team was "working around the clock to fight the current epidemic" of bus problems, adding, "We will do everything in our power to provide safe and reliable services as quickly as possible."

Lee wrote that email vowing to work on the problem in September. It persisted into the spring.

Emma's older sister, now an eighth grader at ICS, took the bus for a time when the family moved to Mount Airy five years ago. (Students in seventh grade and above get SEPTA passes in lieu of a school bus ride; Emma's sister takes the train to school.) The bus service was problematic enough that Rita Hertzog for a few years opted to carpool, joining a large number of other families in the area who didn't have luck with the bus service either.

Overwhelmed by trying to drive into Center City at rush hour with the school-age girls plus a newborn and two toddlers, the family wanted to try the bus again this year. Their tax dollars paid for it, they figured, and perhaps things had improved.

They had not, Hertzog said.

On a recent Monday morning, Emma bounded out of her house at 6:37 a.m. Her mother followed close behind, coffee in hand. The bus was due at 6:38.

Mondays are tough, the day the driver most often is unable to make it to work, Hertzog said. It was 6:40 and no bus, but Hertzog wasn't worried. If the bus didn't arrive by 7, she would start to text other parents to make alternate arrangements. If the bus was not there by 7:15, it was panic time. There would be no way to make it up Lincoln Drive and into ICS in time for school by 8:25.

Emma, a sunny girl with an orange backpack, handles the uncertainty with resilience, her mother said, even when she's on the bus for hours after school, or has to wait outside for an hour or more. Still, in the beginning of the year, she was excited to ride the bus.

"Now," she said, "I'm not excited." It's mostly fun, but sometimes it takes a long time to come or to get home, she said.

The bus showed up at 6:52 that morning. Fourteen minutes late was a victory; Emma got to school on time, waving to her mother and 4-year-old brother Isaac as the doors swung shut.

Hertzog and her husband have not been shy in making their displeasure known. Emma has missed a significant amount of class, though Independence does not penalize students who are late or absent for bus-related reasons. The Hertzogs have called Durham countless times, and even complained to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

"They know us by name," Hertzog said. "We have talked to everyone."

In March, the School Reform Commission awarded Durham a three-year contract worth up to $69 million. Durham will run 270 routes next year; the district had put 375 out to bid. District staff recommended the company not receive the right to run all routes "in order to right-size Durham and to decrease the overall risk associated with service issues." It awarded some of the routes to another company.

District spokesman Lee Whack said the school system expects its vendors to live up to their contracts, and that it is holding Durham accountable for the problems on Emma's and other routes. He said Durham had directed a supervisor to drive Emma's route for now.

"While many of the routes covered by Durham are reliable, when families are unfairly impacted by this, it is unacceptable," Whack said. "We apologize for the problems any family has experienced, and the district continues working to improve the situation."

Durham is the district's largest bus service, with 325 routes. Bus drivers used to be employed by the district; transportation services were outsourced in 2012 in a cost-cutting move.

Durham recently received a "notice of default" from the school district, a legal notification that it was in breach of contract for its service problems on 10 routes and needed to fix them quickly.

Kate Walden, Durham spokeswoman, acknowledged that the company has been "experiencing a delay in pickups and drop-offs," and said officials "want to apologize for the inconvenience that it causes parents and students. We are in the people business. We care when people aren't being served well."

When the economy is good, it is difficult to attract bus drivers, who work part time, have odd hours, are not paid in the summer, and must have both child-abuse clearances and a commercial driver's license.

Durham is stepping up its recruitment efforts, she said. It's also in talks with the school district to see how it might run routes differently next year.

Thomas Scheid, CEO of Independence Charter, said that while the school has had trouble with a few routes this year, Durham had improved its services considerably over previous years.

"Is it perfect? No. I would give it a C+ or a B-," Scheid said. "But we service over 40 ZIP codes. It's not an easy task. I hope they can keep continually improving."

The Hertzogs remain skeptical.

Northwest Philadelphia ICS parents have talked about chipping in to hire a driver or even charter their own bus, but that would be expensive. And what about the families who can't afford another way to get to school?

When the Hertzogs complain, consequences typically fall on the driver, Rita Hertzog says. But it's the driver's right to call out. Hertzog remains frustrated, but now she is steeled to expect problems and pleasantly surprised when the bus is only 13 minutes late.

"The only response I've gotten from Durham has been, 'There is an epidemic. There is a national epidemic for bus drivers. We can't hire enough of them.'"