Las Cruces school buses arriving late nearly every day this year is impacting Vanessa Tarin’s entire family schedule.
“I have to run late to work because my kids will be out there at the bus stop till almost 7:40 (in the morning),” she told Source NM.
Tarin, a caregiver in Las Cruces, has three children in elementary school and one middle schooler. Despite the fact that Las Cruces elementary schools release at 2:40 p.m. she said her elementary-aged children have arrived home as late as 4 p.m. when they take the bus.
The bus delays, first noted at the start of the year at Las Cruces Public Schools, have continued into September, and brand new Superintendent Ignacio Ruíz said he’s pushing the contractor to address the issue.
“It really comes down to personnel, we do not have enough drivers,” he told the several dozen people attending his third meet-and-greet inside Mayfield High School’s cafeteria last week.
Ruíz said that training bus drivers takes about four weeks, and said the transportations company STS has continued to hold hiring fairs to put more drivers in buses. STS New Mexico – operated by the Kansas-based Kincaid Group – is so short on drivers and substitutes, he said, office staff are driving buses.
“I know some of our parents make calls over to them, and they don’t answer, they’re out driving buses,” he said, adding that he encourages parents to call the school’s transportation office to make any reports and concerns.
Las Cruces Superintendent Ignacio Ruíz addresses parent, student and teacher concerns during a session in Mayfield High School’s cafeteria. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)
Ruíz said he’s “examining all options” to alleviate delays, but also wants to figure out what would prevent this from happening next school year.
In July, the district approved an $8.5 million contract with STS – spending $2.3 million in bus leases and another $6.1 million for transportation services. Shortly after the beginning of the school year in late July, the district reported delays as temperatures were in the triple digits.
In a press release, Las Cruces schools said at least one delay was two hours. Since the first weeks, delays times have shrunk, with wait times of 10-15 minutes or occasionally 25-30 minutes, according to text message alerts sent by STS on bus routes.
However in the past two weeks, STS estimated many middle and high school bus routes faced delays from 45 minutes to an hour, according to their alert system.
In an interview with Source NM, Ruíz said there was no communication from STS that driver shortages would be this long-lasting, saying he hoped Labor Day would be a turning point.
“The contract talks about a 15-minute window, and now we’re having 45-minutes, sometimes 50 minutes windows with kids being late,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to revisit with them.”
STS is continuing to organize hiring events, he said, but there’s “only so much you can squeeze from a turnip.”
He said there were plans to meet with the New Mexico Public Education Department to ensure bus driver salaries were competitive with other jobs requiring the same training.
Martha Pincoffs, a spokesperson for the state public education department, did not specify when asked if certain districts or schools were particularly struggling with transportation, instead saying it was a concern in “all regions,” of the state.
Antonio Ortiz, the director of finance and operations at PED, emphasized the safety of school buses for transporting students, in an emailed response to questions.
“I don’t believe any emergency actions are being sought at this time to waive transporting children in CDL vehicles due to the fact that this will compromise the safety of students,” Ortiz said.
Ruíz did not discount asking STS to hold meetings with the public.
“They’re hearing it from us, but I think they may need to hear it from parents,” he said.
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