OAKLAND -- The school district is apologizing to parents of special education students who were left on the side of the road this week when a new school bus vendor failed to pick them up, calling the situation "embarrassing and unacceptable."

Buses run by First Student didn't even show up for at least 200 students on Monday, and an unknown number got to school late, said Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint.

The number of students not picked up by Thursday was down to 11, Flint said, but some travel times for those who did get picked up were more than two hours. The school district had to hire an additional company, American Logistics, to run shuttle buses to pick up the students First Student could not handle.

Apologies were issued after First Student buses didn’t pick up some special needs students in Oakland.
Apologies were issued after First Student buses didn't pick up some special needs students in Oakland.

In a letter to parents of 1,600 special education students who are supposed to be bused to Oakland schools each day, Flint promised the problem would be corrected by Monday.

Paulina Gonzalez, who has an autistic child in the fifth grade, said no bus came on Monday for her son. She drove him to school on Tuesday and Wednesday, and by Thursday the bus did come, but it took 2½ hours for him to arrive at school.

"Nobody told us this was going to happen," Gonzalez said. "I don't want him to go on the bus if it's going to take 2½ hours. He can't be happy sitting on the bus that long. And some parents don't have the luxury of driving their kids to school."


Advertisement

Flint said the district emailed a letter to parents late Tuesday evening and sent out automated phone messages telling them of the problem. The district will reimburse parents for costs related to driving their students to schools, Flint said.

The school district didn't allow enough time to work out logistics of routes, buses and drivers between the time it approved the $8 million contract for First Student in May and the first day of school on Monday, Flint said.

"The level of service we've provided to start the school year is both embarrassing and unacceptable," Flint said in a letter to parents.

First Student won't have enough drivers to do all the routes on time until late September, Flint's letter to parents stated.

"Although our partnership has gotten off to a rocky start, we still believe that First Student will represent a significant upgrade once we've resolved these issues," Flint's letter stated.

Flint said the school district canceled a contract with Durham School Services after receiving numerous complaints about rude bus drivers who were consistently late and lacked sensitivity "towards students with particular needs."

"One of the reasons we chose First Student is they have an emphasis on welcoming behavior," Flint said. "That was a concern with the previous vendor."

Part of the problem with getting First Student buses running and on time was that many of the new drivers they are trying to hire for the Oakland routes are not passing tests that screen for good manners and sensitivity toward special education students, Flint said.

"We're not trying to make excuses," Flint said. "This has definitely been a colossal crisis. We need kids to be in school every day. And we do apologize to those families."

Contact reporter Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.