After complaints of overcrowded school buses, Muscogee County says this year will be different

Mother criticizes MCSD after students taken home while sitting on floor of overcrowded bus

Virginia Korcha spoke to the Muscogee County School Board during its monthly work session Aug. 13, 2018.
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Virginia Korcha spoke to the Muscogee County School Board during its monthly work session Aug. 13, 2018.

After Columbus parents scolded the Muscogee County School District for overcrowded and late buses that plagued the start of last school year, officials say they have made significant strides toward preventing such problems this year.

Out of 217 positions (160 for regular buses, 57 for special-education buses), the district has reduced its bus driver shortage from more than two dozen two years ago, to around a dozen last year, to four as of Monday night, when the administration presented an update at the Muscogee County School Board’s monthly work session.

At the August 2018 work session, a mother said a bus was so overcrowded “children were sitting in the aisle, on the floor.”

Two months later, the board approved a $529,233 incentive program for bus drivers, including:

$500 referral bonus for a candidate without a commercial driver’s license who completes training and works full-time for six months.

$800 referral bonus for a candidate with a CDL who completes bus-driver training and works full-time for six months.

Add 12 bus monitors for special-education routes.

Add 12 floating monitors for higher-incident regular routes, moving the monitors as issues are resolved.

Establish an accident-avoidance performance incentive. Provide team bonus to members of the zone with the lowest number of accidents, $200 for lowest number of incidents and $300 if that number is zero.

Establish an enterprise fund for bus driver apparel and additional recognition. Revenue would come from fines for recycled oil, scrap metal and stop-arm camera violations.

Eight of the 55 drivers who were hired in 2018-19 came through a referral from a current bus driver.

The district has seven vacancies out of 84 positions for bus monitors.

Another encouraging indicator: No bus driver out of the 150 that were drug-tested in 2018-19 had a positive result.

Exacerbating the bus problems last year, MCSD operations chief David Goldberg said then, were 3,000 more students than the previous year signing up for bus service. That increased the total number of passengers to approximately 18,000 out of the district’s 31,569 students.

That’s why school district officials urge parents and guardians with children new to the district or with a new address since last school year to register as soon as possible. Especially if the student attends a magnet school outside of their attendance zone, it could take as many as two weeks for a bus pass to be assigned, said MCSD transportation director Herbert Hill.

Issuing bus passes from the central administration caused delays and became “a big issue” last year, Hill said. So the procedure has been returned to the schools.

A continuing concern, however, is the age of the bus fleet. Out of 258 buses, 162 are at least 10 years old.

“There will be some breakdowns,” Hill said.

Goldberg added, “There will not be a perfect transportation opening for the first three weeks of school. We have too many kids registering (late).”

Nonetheless, Goldberg praised the transportation department for the improvements.

“These guys have worked their tails off,” he said.

District 4 representative Naomi Buckner responded, “We want to make it as perfect as we can.”

District 7 representative Cathy Williams sparked applause in the boardroom when she said the administration has done “a phenomenal job” boosting morale in the transportation department and filling nearly all the vacancies. “This is awesome,” she said.

Goldberg also noted MCSD received $155,000 from the state for bus replacements — enough for only “a bus and a quarter,” he said. But thanks to the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax approved by Columbus voters in March 2015, $5 million out of the estimated $192,185,000 total for 24 capital projects was targeted for new buses.

“We need $3 million every single year for buses,” Goldberg said. “That gives us 30 (new buses) every single year.”

Another source of revenue, Goldberg added, could come from selling surplus property.

After the work session Monday, Goldberg told the Ledger-Enquirer that MCSD’s human resources department “just worked really, really diligently” to fill the bus driver vacancies. “The new system we have for references has helped out some. We just got the word out.”

The district also is training drivers who don’t have a commercial driver’s license yet, “so that helped us gain a lot,” Goldberg said.

For information about the Muscogee County School District bus transportation, call the department at 706-748-2876.

For information about registering your child for school in MCSD, call the office at 706-748-2219, 2222 or 2223.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.