Stillwater Area School Board explores transportation options in emergency meeting

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On this first day of classes, 15 buses for Stillwater Area Public Schools sat idle with no drivers.

"It’s Tuesday, and we are now trying to scramble, trying to figure out how to get our kids to school,” says Jorlene Leslie, from Stillwater. “I’m a single mom. I will have to transport two kids to two different schools: one in high school and one in middle school.”

Leslie, a certified nurse assistant, is working to arrange transportation for her 12-year-old daughter, Tiana, and her son, Talon, who’s 14.

“It’s very frustrating,” Leslie says. “I’m a CNA, so I don’t have a choice to just pick my schedules, when I want to come in, when I leave."

Leslie was among the parents who received an email last Friday from Superintendent Malinda Landsfeldt, saying "the transportation vendor has been unable to find drivers for the number of bus routes.”

In the email, Landsfeldt said affected parents will need to find alternative transportation for "the foreseeable future."

But the superintendent told school board members during an emergency session Tuesday night that she had some news.

"Yesterday we were notified that seven of the unfilled routes would be covered and 15 routes would not be covered today,” Landsfeldt said. “There’s no quick fix or easy answer.”

During that session, board members heard about possible ideas.

“[We] looked at possibly using vans,” explained Mark Drommerhausen, the district’s director of operations. “We’ve looked at coach buses, charter buses, reached out to other vendors. At this time, we have not been successful at that.”

Landsfeldt says the first priority is busing for children who live two miles or more from school, special education students, and those from who are required by law to have transportation.

She says other ideas include rerouting buses and trying expanded bus hubs, where a bus might make one stop in a neighborhood, instead of six or seven.

That might mean more walking for some students, but it also means routes can be completed more quickly, allowing for a second round of pickup for a school.

"Rerouting will begin immediately and take effect in the next two weeks,” Landsfeldt told the board. “Families will be notified of the changes in their service. The hope is to get back to regular bus service as quickly as possible.”

District officials are also discussing the possibility of reimbursement for parents who give their kids rides to and from school.

One potential option could be a 56-cents-a-mile compensation.

Landsfeldt noted the district is now in litigation with its bus carrier, Metropolitan Transportation Network.

Last Friday the district filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan for alleged breach of contract, saying school officials first learned about the driver shortage in an email sent Wednesday.

On Monday, Metropolitan released a statement,which says in part:

“A significant driver shortage across the country is creating challenges for all schools. We were working diligently with the Stillwater School District until last week to try to find solutions to ensure all students had safe and reliable transportation. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure we are covering as many routes as possible and do our part to help alleviate the concerns and uncertainty of the families in the district.”

Drommerhausen says if people are interested in driving for the district, they should reach out.

“If people reach out to us and want to drive a bus, we will definitely get them signed up and go through the licensing requirement they have to do,” he said.

“We do not have an end time, but we’re hopeful that it can be,” Landsfeldt added. “But unfortunately, we don’t know when this is going to end.”

The superintendent says she hope to have some specific answers in the next week or two.

Leslie is hoping something can be arranged to get kids back on the buses.

"It upsets everything,” she says. “It makes it a mess. They don’t know when they’re coming, they don’t know when they’re going. Routine is nice, and our kids need that right now.”