Zum Services of California won a contract to service 230 Howard County Public School System bus routes beginning in July. The company is planning to offset its emissions by investing in carbon sequestering projects in Maryland and transition to an all-electric fleet over the next five years. (Zum Services photo)

Routing issues, insufficient preparation and a lack of drivers led to a rocky first week as students returned to Howard County public schools in August.

At the Howard County Public School System Board of Education meeting on Aug. 31, Superintendent Michael Martirano reported that 340 of the system’s 503 bus routes arrived late on the first day of school on Aug. 29.

HCPSS officials said they cancelled 54 routes until the end of the first week of school because Zum Services, a new California-based transportation contractor responsible for a majority of county routes, was temporarily unable to cover them.

Martirano suggested then that start times might have to be modified to ensure sufficient turnaround times for drivers servicing different schools. (The school system on September 20 changed its start times.)

The school board responded to the situation by demanding a comprehensive internal review of issues impacting school transportation and a root cause analysis of the problems at the start of the school year in conjunction with the new start times.

“(Modifying our times) plus or minus 20 minutes may not seem like a lot, but … parents set and build their lives around the school calendar and start times,” said BOE Chair Antonia Watts.

The school system’s Chief Operating Officer, Scott Washington, resigned from the district because of the transportation problems.

Cascade of problems

Aside from driver shortages, other issues added to the confusion in this year’s start time and service provider transition.

“Bus route information provided to some drivers was inconsistent with what was provided to families and schools,” Martirano acknowledged.

Many families were provided with incorrect bus numbers, and stress testing to familiarize drivers with routes and iron out timing problems was not conducted in a timely fashion, he added.

Zum is now working to strengthen its driver pipeline and driver retention by providing an additional $500 a week bonus for drivers who go four weeks without an absence, as well as an $8,000 incentive for candidates who apply and already have their CDL certification.

Martirano said that while Zum Services flew in and housed 70 drivers from Seattle and Spokane to provide backup for the first week, many of those drivers returned to their families and primary jobs in Washington State when schools there reopened.

Jahantab Sidiqqui, chief administrative officer for HCPSS, said Zum Services is working with contractors in other local school districts and recruiting additional drivers to backfill the positions that some of these reserve drivers were called on to fill.

By Sept. 5, HCPSS announced that Zum would be able to cover all but eight of the routes that had been cancelled the previous week.

Siddiqui confirmed to the board that it was the HCPSS Office of Transportation, not Zum Services, that designed the routing for the county’s bus routes.

“Zum is now using their technology … running models to help us determine what the sweet spot will be to adjust bell times and pickup times within the window the Board approved for start times,” he said.

BOE member Jolene Mosley termed the situation “bizarre” in light of HCPSS having spent $200,000 in its last budget for routing software to optimize its transportation system.

Hard look

Earlier this year, as many of the county’s pre-existing contractors digested the BOE’s decision to award the bulk of its bus routes to an out-of-state contractor, some expressed doubt that it would be a seamless transition.

“Obviously Zum’s not going to get enough drivers if their contract’s supposed to start in July,” Mitch Gunther of M.B.G. Enterprises told The Business Monthly in June. “They have two weeks to come up with a couple hundred drivers, we don’t see that happening.”

Martirano said his administration is focused squarely on fixing the problems to ensure that they do not continue or happen again, but some members of the BOE have signaled their intention to pursue remedies and penalties stipulated within the BOE’s contract with Zum.

“I want to move forward with a hard look at how we got here, what assumptions were made in error, what challenges were understated or misunderstood, and what procedures should have been in place that would have provided for mitigation,” said BOE member Jennifer Mallo. 

“The contractor didn’t do their job,” said BOE member Robyn Scates. “Dr. Martirano and his team should not have to tell the contractor, who we are paying millions of dollars, that they need to practice routes.”

BOE member Jacky McCoy said the board made the assumption that Zum’s level of experience should have made for a seamless transition.

“I read the contract and there are some penalties,” she said. “We can’t drop (Zum) because we need service and we need a solution now to get these children to school, but we do need a comprehensive examination of all the systems that were involved in this fiasco.”

Zum officials responded to a request for comment from The Business Monthly with a link to the company’s blog, which contained the following statement: “We know that disruptions to transportation this week have been an enormous stress on parents and children. For that, we would like to apologize to everyone impacted. Zum is actively working with HCPSS officials to remedy all outstanding issues and ensure that every student has access to reliable transportation services.”