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Busing problems vex Lawrence School District parents

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The first days of a new school year are laden with many problems to be solved, and a shortage of bus drivers appears to be the No. 1 issue vexing private-school parents in the Lawrence School District. The “Lawrence District 15 Residents” Facebook page was besieged by more than 200 comments and complaints on transportation issues earlier this month.

Typical of the postings was this one by Bracha Barak Schwarz: “My 3 girls start at 8:45, my bus card says 8:39. Not one day has it shown up at that time. One day it never showed up and the other days it was after 9!!”

Adina and Shmuely Selmar posted: “It’s horrible! My son gets picked up at 7:05! Problem is the bus company pays too little attention and they can’t get drivers so they overwork [the] ones they have with extra routes, which means some kids are getting picked up way too early and others way too late. My son gets to school before it even starts, so no one [is] there to supervise him. It’s not okay!”

“My daughter’s bus goes to Brooklyn first, then to Atlantic Beach, then starts the route for the rest of the kids at 9:10,” Pinny Faska posted. “School starts at 9. No one at the bus company cares and no one from the transportation office responds. I have a similar issue with my other [kid’s] bus as well.”

Nearly all of the comments expressed similar sentiments.

The district’s assistant superintendent for operations, Jeremy Feder, who is also the transportation supervisor, acknowledged that there have been problems. He chalked them up to working out the first-week kinks in the system.

“This is not a systemic issue,” Feder said. “This is an inevitability of a first week of school for most districts. It takes extra time in the beginning for students, drivers and schools. Our district transports almost 6,000 to approximately 180 schools with 700 bus routes. The district has two online forms for parents to utilize to convey concerns or bus stop changes. The parents were notified on the app, it’s on the Lawrence website, and many were emailed.”

Feder said, “The district recognizes that there is a driver shortage locally, in the country and statewide. Until routes are run regularly, it is hard to determine which ones can loop together effectively.”

Michael Sperber, risks manager for the Inwood-based Independent Coach Corporation, confirmed what has been described by industry experts as a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers. Independent Coach serves the Hewlett-Woodmere and Lawrence districts.

“This is a true thing, getting people to drive the buses,” Sperber said. “There are many variables. The nature of the job: It’s part-time. Two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon.”

More than eight in 10 school transportation directors across New York state consider the driver shortage either their top problem or concern (60 percent) or a major problem or concern (23 percent), according to a report released in February by the New York State School Boards Association, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation and the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Sperber said that the same issues that affect commuters who drive affect bus runs: road closures, traffic volume and unforeseen problems ranging from burst water mains to downed power lines. “Never mind that even with the yellow lights flashing, traffic doesn’t give a school bus the right-of-way,” he said, adding that the continuing population growth in the Five Towns and the congestion on the area’s three primary roads — Broadway, Peninsula Boulevard and West Broadway — exacerbates the problems.

Feder said he expected these issues to “sort out” in the next few days as students — especially  younger ones — become more familiar with their buses and drivers. Sperber agreed, likening school transportation to a sport in which a team makes adjustments to its game plan.

“I would never have enough drivers, and would rather have a surplus,” Sperber said, noting that the company offers numerous incentives in an effort to hire drivers. “This is a family-owned business, and the workers do what they can and do it safely. We’re carrying precious cargo. There are no shortcuts.”

To report transportation concerns or problems, go to www.lawrence.org and look for Welcome Back to School-Transportation on the left side of the homepage. The next Lawrence Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Oct. 7, at 8 p.m., at Lawrence High School, 2 Reilly Road in Cedarhurst.

Have an opinion about school bus transportation? Send your letter to the editor to jbessen@liherald.com.