The private bus companies that transport city students racked up 115 infractions just two months into the 2017-18 school year, according to district records. This puts them on track to surpass last school year’s total of 188 violations.
School officials fined the 13 firms $50,070 for the alleged infractions from early September to mid-October. Two firms with the most alleged violations were Summit-based A-1 Elegant Tours with 38 and Sarah Transportation of Totowa with 22. A-1 Elegant Tours was fined $26,500 and Sarah Transportation was fined $5,500, according to district records.
More than half of the violations occurred after acting superintendent Eileen Shafer’s mid-September warning to bus companies to either correct their behavior or face loss of district business.
Shafer last week said her ultimatum covered “grossly negligent” incidents that put students in danger. For example, when a bus company, U.S. Student Services of Woodland Park, allegedly left a student on the bus and later one of its driver failed to report an accident, both incidents were deemed “egregious,” and the district moved to take away 37 routes from the firm. U.S. Student Services was later allowed to keep 34 routes and paid a substantial penalty for its infractions.
“We’re holding all of these companies responsible by fining them,” said Shafer.
On Sept. 15, 2017, Shafer announced the district would sever ties with U.S. Student Services over the two incidents. On Sept. 18, 2017, Sarah Transportation failed to drop off one or more students to an adult.
When asked about that incident, Shafer said, “You get two chances.” The superintendent said the driver and the aide were terminated in that incident.
The 115 violations included late buses, failure to pick up students, no cameras inside vehicles, and drivers without commercial licenses. There were also the infamous incidents of students left on the bus, failure to report accident, and students being dropped off without being handed to school staff.
Shafer said failure to pick up incidents involved students picked up from their homes.
School board member Emanuel Capers pointed to the 41 violations issued to bus companies for being late. He said this may have to do with the city’s congested streets. He blamed road closures in the city that begin prior to the start of the school day. Councilman Michael Jackson has been complaining about non-emergency road closures prior to the start of the school day that interfere with vehicular traffic. There are talks in the council to put in place an ordinance that will prohibit non-emergency road closures prior to start of the school day.
“I know her original intention, but there are some legal realities. There’s also the reality of how do you get children to school? That may interfere with what she had intended,” added school board member Jonathan Hodges. “You can’t eliminate 50 routes at once and hope to get children to school.”
The district is served by 21 private bus companies. It pays more than $15 million to those firms to transport more than 4,500 students, according to officials.
Some school board members and the superintendent agree on stiffer fines for violations. Hodges said progressive fines that increase in subsequent violations will help to reduce infractions. Stiffer penalties will have to be stipulated in next year’s contracts, said officials.
The district levied the biggest fine of $38,911 this year against U.S. Student Services. The firm also forfeited 3 of its 37 routes. The combination of the fines and loss of routes amounted to a $162,883 penalty.
U.S. Student Services had 12 infractions, third most this school year, according to district records. The firm sued the district after its routes were put out for bid.
A-1 Elegant Tours, owned by councilman Shahin Khalique’s brother Shelim Khalique, submitted lowest bids for 31 of the routes. Ensuing controversy involving the firm forced the councilman’s brother to decline the contracts.
School board members approved a settlement agreement with U.S. Student Services on Wednesday night. The board also awarded the two Dale Avenue School routes to Jersey Kids and We Care School Transportation for $75,651. The third route is being put up for public bid, according to district officials.