Some school bus drivers have had to pump the brakes; others have pulled to the side of the road and filled the radiator with water and in one vehicle there was an electrical fire. There have been numerous other problems, including flashers that don’t function.
The condition of the School Department’s fleet of smaller buses used for special needs students is not getting better. In fact, some are in such bad shape they don’t bother to repair them. They are like empty yellow carcasses parked at administration offices on Warwick Avenue.
Eventually, maybe in a couple of months, there will be no more Warwick-owned and operated school buses. That’s because, after five years, the Warwick Independent School Employees and the School Committee have signed a 3-year agreement that eliminates the transportation department.
Like other surplus school property, the buses will be turned over to the city.
For the unforeseeable future, however, the buses and their aides are on the road. They are doing the job. But with buses breaking down and vacant positions going unfilled because they are going to be eliminated, and employees on sick leave, those that are left are covering their own routes and other people’s. The result is some students getting to school 45 minutes late.
“We do have some doubling up,” school director of transportation Stephen O’Haire said Tuesday. “We’re dealing with equipment and staffing issues. Hopefully we will be back on schedule next week. That’s our goal.”
O’Haire asked parents to be patient and assured that unsafe buses are not permitted on the road.
Drivers and aides, some of who have worked for 25 years and more, were dropped from the WISE contract as of Sept. 1.
“They threw us away like yesterday’s garbage,” said one bus aide on Tuesday.
From driver Tammy Flanagan’s perspective, First Student, that has been contracted to provide the service, should be the first line of responsibility.
“We’re waiting for the ax to fall. According to the contract language we don’t exist now,” she said.
Flanagan said she and other drivers are getting last minute calls to cover routes of buses that have broken down or are absent. The added runs mean missed schedules and, in Flanagan’s case, reporting late for a second job that she now fears she could lose.
One student Flanagan picks up is on the bus for at least 45 minutes before getting to Toll Gate because of the route she is covering.
Flanagan said the understanding was that First Student would assume those routes. She said five First Student drivers are on the job now and the schools are leasing First Student buses to cover the runs. She said that First Student buses also break down, complicating pickup and delivery.
Schools have 27 routes for an estimated 500 students daily. O’Haire said 24 buses were up and running yesterday morning.
O’Haire said a transition from school to First Student operated buses hasn’t been worked out.
“We haven’t met yet,” he said. “We’re still in the bus business.”
He said minor bus repairs are being made but in other situations, “the cost of repair is not effective.”
Flanagan, who has driven Warwick buses for 17 years said, “We’re still here trying to do it for the kids.”
But there’s a lot of uncertainty that is adding to the stress of knowing they’re on their way out. Some drivers and aides, depending on their longevity and skills, can bump into other school jobs. Those with 20 years or more and planning to retire are being offered two year’s health coverage. They, as all others in the union, have a 20 percent co-payment on health insurance.
“None of us know when they’re [First Student] supposed to take over,” Flanagan said. “They’re [the school department] just winging it and we’re trying to cover.”