TWIN FALLS • The Twin Falls School District is fed up with lousy bus service.
School trustees heard a presentation Wednesday night and agreed to send a letter to Western States Bus Services, which operates buses for the Twin Falls, Filer and Buhl districts, as well as Xavier Charter School.
Drivers are late. Parents don’t get answers when they call to complain. And the district has documented several cases where drivers failed to deal with problems on their buses, the letter states.
“We’re trying to being patient with them while they (work) through some issues,” said Brady Dickinson, the district’s director of operations. “But things need to change rapidly.”
Bus company representatives weren’t at the meeting or immediately available for comment.
The problems began last spring, but the issue came to a head within the last week, Dickinson told trustees, after a series of discussions with the bus company. He and Superintendent Wiley Dobbs met with company CEO Tony Barnhart again on Wednesday ahead of the evening school board meeting.
The company is struggling with a driver shortage. When a driver calls in sick, office workers are pulled away to drive routes, leaving nobody to handle parents’ calls.
“When parents called the company to get answers, they felt like they weren’t getting information,” Dickinson said.
The district responded by sending home letters about the busing problems to students on affected routes.
“It’s been a real frustration for parents and patrons this fall,” Dickinson said.
Western States Bus Services has provided busing for the school district for 20 years. The district’s latest five-year contract with the company runs through 2018.
The driver shortage isn’t unique to Twin Falls. Bus drivers work part time. There’s a large gap in their shifts in the middle of the day. And they have to meet special requirements.
“Hiring bus drivers is almost as difficult as hiring teachers,” school board chairman Bernie Jansen said.
The company has taken steps to improve, especially in the past week, district officials said, and the number of routes running late has been “greatly reduced.” Company officials also met recently with school principals to discuss the service.
While clearly frustrated, district officials are optimistic the problems can be worked out.
“They provided great service up until this year,” Dickinson said.
In other board business, trustees also heard a presentation about efforts to renew a two-year supplemental levy totaling $9 million. Voters will decide in the March 10 election.
School officials are making presentations to employees and community groups. The purpose is to help people make an informed decision – not to tell them how to vote, Dobbs said.
If approved, the levy amount will stay the same and property taxes won’t increase, he said.
The school district’s enrollment has grown drastically — with about 1,200 more students than four years ago — but state funding has dipped. And even if the levy passes, it’s not enough to restore the district’s budget to pre-recession levels.
Carryover funds will total only about $1 million by the end of the year – the equivalent of one week of operating expenses.
Twin Falls isn’t alone in seeking voter help to pay for operating expenses. Statewide, 95 of 115 school districts have supplemental levies, which Dobbs called “survival levies.”