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Pittsburgh Public Prepares To Reopen But Not All Students Have A Ride To Get There

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Transportation companies that provide service to Pittsburgh Public Schools say they don’t have enough drivers to meet the district’s needs — even though the district has promised families it will return to in-person schooling five days a week when the academic year begins next month.

The school board on Wednesday approved a health and safety plan that will require all students and staff to wear masks in buildings and maintain at least three feet of distance. And in an effort to address the bus shortage, the board approved additional transportation contracts with two charter companies: Sun Coach Lines and Krise Transportation. Board member Kevin Carter was the lone no vote.

The board also took steps to make up for lost bus service. Middle and high schoolers at four schools — CAPA, Milliones, SciTech and Obama — will now ride Port Authority buses to and from school, while 760 students in 12 elementary and middle schools have been redesignated as “walkers” and will no longer receive district-provided transportation.

The district’s directors of transportation and public relations did not respond to multiple requests for comment over two days.

Last month, the district said it needed 300 drivers to transport students to and from school. Officials haven’t said how many the district is still short.

The problem isn’t new. Historically, the district has contracted out for drivers and buses because it says it would be too expensive to operate a fleet of its own. But district officials have said in the past that they contract with almost every available company in the area and still often run short.

The position is part-time and requires a commercial driver’s license, with hours that are split between early morning and afternoon. And the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

“It’s become substantially, substantially worse and I don’t think all the school districts really realize the severity of the problem,” said David Sunstein, owner of Sun Coach Lines. “It’s beyond critical, and it’s not going away and there’s no quick solution.”

Sunstein said that even after raising wages and increasing recruiting efforts, the company can’t deliver all of what PPS needs.

Nine of the 21 companies that transport PPS students told WESA that they have lost a significant number of drivers. Multiple garage managers said that a majority of their drivers were retirees who say driving is now too much of a health risk.

They say they will likely meet the minimum number of routes they are contractually obligated to cover for the district. (Eleven companies declined comment or were unavailable after multiple calls over four days.)

Tim Krise, president of Krise Transportation, said though it has 600 drivers across the state, Krise doesn’t have the number of drivers that the district has asked for.

Sierra Transportation on the South Side reports that it is down to four drivers from about 23 before the pandemic. Office manager Mary Taylor said they will need another 10 drivers to service its PPS routes.

Taylor blamed unemployment benefits and competition from companies like Uber and Amazon that offer higher wages.

“We’re suffering because we’re not getting increased pay so it’s even more challenging to get the drivers back because we have to compete with [higher] starting rates,” she said. “Everybody’s giving more and more incentive for people to come, and it’s getting harder and harder to even compete.”

And while district administrators have repeatedly said they are working with the companies to help recruit new drivers, three transportation providers said that the district has done little to help them — even as it helps larger transportation companies with their staffing problems.

In an effort to recruit drivers for ABC Transit, the district hosted an event last month called Summerfest Kids Day with food trucks, vendors, giveaways and a live radio broadcast on hip-hop station WAMO.

ABC has offered up to $4,000 sign-on bonuses and is now paying drivers $21 per hour, one of the highest rates in the area. Todd O’Shell, vice president of operations for ABC, said it will have enough drivers for its PPS routes, but the company is working to hire more drivers to take on additional routes.

But that makes things tougher for smaller providers like Sierra. “They can afford to have fairs and pull people in,” Taylor said. “Us as smaller companies, it really gets harder for us to compete with all that. So we can’t even afford to do that … I just wish that even for some of our smaller companies [PPS] would do a little better.”

During a Wednesday Pittsburgh City Council hearing on the city’s “State of Educational Emergency” declaration, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet told council that while hundreds attended the Summerfest event, only 17 applications were submitted.

“You have some people saying ‘I can make more money sitting at home on unemployment than I can driving a bus,’ so those are some of the things we deal with,” Hamlet told council.

John Norman, a manager of EX Transportation in Brighton Heights, echoed the concern that the district is ignoring smaller struggling companies. He estimates the company has lost 30 percent of its drivers. But, he said the district is paying the same rate as before.

“I think they have helped larger companies … but they haven’t attempted to do anything with us at all,” he said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.