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A school bus stops in front of Robbinsdale Cooper High School. An ongoing driver shortage prompted District 281 to ask families to opt-out of busing, if possible.

The Robbinsdale School District has identified 1,054 students who will not need a bus for the rest of the school year.

Jeff Connell, the district’s director of transportation, told the school board Oct. 18 that said the results of the “opt-out” survey will be an aid as staff grapple with an ongoing shortage of bus drivers.

Since the first day of the 2021-2022 school year, 12 canceled bus routes have left 1,486 students without transportation to school. Parents have been challenged to get their children to school, often waiting in congested pickup and dropoff lines that cut into school hours. A handful of out-of-state drivers unfamiliar with the area, and a nonexistent back-up force has caused delays and additional, daily route cancellations.

The results of the opt-out survey will give the district “immediate flexibility” to begin adding stops to existing routes, Connell said. In other cases, families may be asked to offer partial transportation to existing bus stops along one of the district’s 55 unaffected routes.

Superintendent David Engstrom thanked parents that took the survey and “relinquished” their student’s seat to make way for another.

Still, the results are slightly off-target. The district had hoped for an opt-out pool of at least 2,400 students, or 20% of the district’s student body.

Ultimately, the district plans to use the opt-out data to redraw bus routes by Jan. 2. The new routes will be streamlined to reduce the number of bus drivers needed to complete them.

Connell did have some sunnier news to report, including an agreement with a company that will provide some charter and activity transportation to students with afterschool activities and athletics.

“We’ve been struggling to keep up with the level of activities, especially at the middle school level,” Connell said.

Another silver lining: Durham had six local drivers testing for their full licenses this week, and an additional 21 drivers in earlier stages of the training process. Connell said new drivers will replace the 11 out-of-state drivers in active routes first. When the district no longer has out-of-state drivers, it will begin to assign new hires to the canceled routes.

District liability, Durham

All board members chose to personally address the issue at the meeting, aside from Board member Helen Bassett, who was absent. New board member Sharon Brooks Green was also absent, as she is not expected to being participating in meetings until November.

Board member Greta Evans-Becker said those who spoke to the board prior to the meeting’s start, including a handful of Durham bus drivers, were “very moving.”

“It really touched our hearts to hear of the difficult times people are having with the transportation,” Evans-Becker said.

Board member Mike Herring said he understood parents struggles and reminded people that the driver shortage was a nationwide issue. Board member David Boone echoed the same sentiment.

“I’m advocating as strongly as I can to make things happen as quickly as they can,” Herring said. “Hopefully January rolls around and we have more drivers, and some alleviation from the opt-out will offer even greater flexibility for us, and we’ll be able to handle all of our students.”

Board member John Vento said he appreciated the “candid” feedback from speakers, and personally apologized to a parent who spoke of their child being left behind by a bus.

“It was very good for the board to hear it. We’ve not been hearing a lot of this,” Vento said. “And I want to just say, just because something is set out on social media does not mean this board – or our administration – has any idea what it is. Those are echo chambers out there, that is not communicated directly with us. Please share your stories with us.”

Vento also cautioned against some of the ideas district residents had put forth at the board’s last work session. He was chiefly concerned about the potential liabilities if the district became involved in an organized ride-sharing program.

“Minnesota regulations prohibit volunteers from driving any type-three vehicles,” Vento said. “Volunteers are not able to drive if the school is involved in providing the vehicle, organizing or coordinating the transportation, or giving compensation for transport.”

Vento clarified that the regulations didn’t apply to parents driving children or arranging carpools, but he was wary that any organized effort, “even if (the district was) not involved necessarily,” it could result in liability issues.

Board member Samir Sant said despite understanding the driver shortage, he was not satisfied with the level of service coming from Durham Transportation. The district signed a two-year contract with the national bus company earlier this year, which is set to expire in July 2023.

“Members of our district are very compassionate and hardworking, and I tell Durham to not take that for granted, because people will have a tipping point, and we’re not going to sit here and put up with this for another year,” Sant said.

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