PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — There have been two crashes in two days involving Palm Beach County school buses, but as far as the bus schedules and dealing with a driver shortage, school district leaders said things have gone fairly smoothly.
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There are 100 fewer bus routes this year in the School District of Palm Beach County, and that's just one thing leaders said has helped a smooth start to the school year.
"We had no lost children at the end of the day. That’s always key," said Joseph Sanches, the chief operating officer for the School District of Palm Beach County.
Sanches oversees transportation at the district and calls this year a successful start when it comes to bus routes, with more learning to do each day.
"We did have some double backing we had to do," Sanches said. "I don’t want to sugar coat that we did have some challenges. But for the most part, things went well."
According to Sanches, 85% of Palm Beach County school buses were on time Wednesday morning during the first day of school.
Sanches said that this year, more families registered their students to ride the bus ahead of time. Last year it was about 10,000 students, but this year it's more than 30,000.
"We're going to pick up their child whether they register or not. But what that does by registering is we avoid the overcrowding of the buses," Sanches said.
A new contract with an outside company, Maranata School Bus Services, is handling five routes in the northern part of Palm Beach County to help with the bus driver shortage.
The company is driving its own buses so parents will see Maranata buses in that part of the county.
"We also took a real hard look at our routes last year. We started the year with over 660 routes. And this year, by looking at opportunities to consolidate, we are under 500 routes," Sanches said. "That makes a big difference for us. That means that’s 100 less drivers we need to cover our routes."
"I'm hoping it’s just the first week bus jitters," said Kim Prendergast, who has an eighth grader at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton.
Prendergast said her daughter's ride home took much longer than expected.
"She didn’t get home until two hours after school was over," Prendergast said. "I have an app on her phone, so I can see where she is. But I can’t imagine kids who don’t have a phone."
Sanches said sometimes it's simply the dismissal process that delays the bus drivers who start with the youngest students.
"When we dismiss elementary students, it’s important we match them to the right bus. And if that process takes a little longer, it impacts the high schools and the middle schools," Sanches said.
Bottom line, Sanches is asking parents for grace while the kinks are worked out these first few days.
Nearly 20 more drivers are in the training process and will be on the road soon to help the situation.
If you have problems with your bus not arriving on time, you can call the School District of Palm Beach County's Transportation Department at 561-357-1110 and someone can help you.
"It hasn’t been as bad as in previous years, but we are transporting 40,000 to 50,000 students a year. So in the scheme of things, it’s definitely a small percentage," Sanches said. "But we know that every single child is important and if that’s your child, you want to make sure your child is taken care of."
The Palm Beach County School Board on Aug. 17 will vote on a $3 million emergency contract with Maranata School Bus Services. Sanches hopes the school district will not have to spend that much as they hire more of their own drivers.
$390,000 will cover the cost of the drivers from the first day of school until the contract is approved.