Savannah-Chatham schools let out for the summer in about six weeks. But district officials are already looking ahead to next school year. That’s when, for the first time in more than a decade, the district will run school buses instead of a private company. We looked at what that will mean for families - and bus drivers.
On a sunny afternoon in Pooler, Jessica Auner was waiting for her son’s bus. She said it usually gets there around 4 p.m. - usually, because the bus can be a bit unpredictable. On this day, 4 p.m. comes and goes with no bus.
"It’ll be here any minute, I promise," Auner laughed.
It does eventually arrive, around 4:15 p.m. Auner said this delay isn’t too bad. Some days, the bus has broken down and her son Isaac has gotten home as much as two hours late.
"It makes for a very long evening," she said, "because you’ve got dinner and you’ve got bath time and homework time and you’ve got your whole routine like every parent does."
Delays like that are one problem the school district hopes to fix by taking over the bus system.
Tucked behind closed doors at district headquarters, the routing team worked on mapping out the most strategic routes. Kecia Ling was on the phone with a trainer, who helps the team work through the finer points of the routing computer program.
"The software that the district purchased is really user-friendly," Ling said, "and with the hands-on training, it makes it much easier to put the kids on routes that are safe and efficient, because we can actually go in and see it."
The routers can see and change every detail, so they can account for things like local traffic patterns and making sure kids don’t have to cross dangerous streets.
The program will also help the school district get real-time information out to parents about bus changes or delays.
"We’re going to make sure that we’re responsive," said Vanessa Kaigler, who's overseeing the transition. "So if you call, think your bus is late, if you have some questions about your route, we want to be able to provide you with a response in a timely manner."
Kaigler said communication will be key, especially in the earliest days of the new system, when there are bound to be some problems.
"If we can go back and assess what happened on the first day, let’s identify where we may have had some breakdowns, and let’s be ready for the second day," she says. "And we’re going to get better each and every day."
That’s what district officials are promising overall: a better bus system than they’ve had using private contractors.
But drivers like Kendrick Banks say it won’t get better for them. "No one has said, this is where you’re going to be, this is how much you’re going to make, these are how many hours you’re going to make," he says.
Drivers have those guarantees now thanks to agreements between the private bus companies and the Teamsters union. And while nearly 300 drivers have applied to work for the district, Banks says many of them are worried.
"It’s very easy for them to say something to you, pull it back and then we have no recourse because there’s no record of it," he says, "and so that’s where a lot of people are apprehensive and afraid."
The district has promised “competitive” salaries and pay during the non-working summer months. But union leaders say that’s not enough. They want the school board to formally recognize and work with the union.
"I understand their concerns," says School Board President Jolene Byrne, "and if it were just up to the board, I think that probably could happen."
Byrne says Georgia law prevents the district from formally negotiating with the union - but school officials are willing to talk.
"It can’t be legally binding," she says, "but it can be an understanding between both parties. And it’s in our best interest to make sure that if we make an agreement with them, we keep them happy."
The district, parents, and drivers like Kendrick Banks do agree on one point. "It’s not about me and how I feel," Banks says. "It’s about getting those kids to the school so that they can learn, safely."
Starting next school year, it will be the district’s job to ensure the bus system does just that.