Md. school bus association calls out Howard Co. bus contract

Last month in Howard County, Maryland, many public school students started their new school year waiting on the curb as school buses were hours late to pick them up or didn’t show up at all.

Now, the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association, which represents 3,000 school buses in 19 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, is weighing in and calling on the county school system to terminate its contract with California-based company Zum Transportation that operates 210+ buses for the school system.

In a statement Thursday, the association said community-based contractors can provide solutions if the school system is willing to end “its failed experiment of a contract” with Zum.

MSBCA President Steve Nelson called the situation “alarming” and said the school system and the contractor “failed to live up to their responsibilities to the students and families they are expected to serve.”

He recommended the school system rely more on in-state contractors that “have been and remain committed to doing their jobs without putting our children as risk and making sure everyone can (have) access to transportation to schools.”

HCPS restored all of its more than 500 bus routes this week and shifted school start times by 10 minutes on Wednesday to better accommodate school bus schedules making it to school on time.

Zum responds

WTOP reached out to Zum about the letter’s claims.

In a statement, a Zum spokesperson said transportation issues at the start of the school year have been addressed.

“Zum’s route coverage has been consistently at or near 100% since the beginning of September,” the statement said. “All vendors covering 3-tier routes experienced delays during early weeks, including Zum. The district’s change this week from the initial overly-compressed bell schedule has led to on-time performance returning to normal levels.”

The statement went on to say: “To be clear, many of these critics already had years of opportunity to address the bussing challenges of Howard County, but were simply not successful. As a result, Zum inherited a multi-year driver shortage of 40+% in Howard County. Since being awarded the contract, Zum’s combination of relentless recruiting and industry leading pay has fully eliminated the driver shortage on Zum’s Howard County routes.”

Since the start of the school year, Zum has continued to provide updates regarding transportation service for the county online.

In an update Thursday, Zum wrote that shortened route driving times were to blame for the series of delays, saying it “simply wasn’t enough time to transport students in a safe and timely manner.”

The added 10 minutes allow bus drivers to have more time to deal with traffic. It reported that in the past two days, on-time performance has “drastically improved” from 76% before the change to 90% in the morning, and 25% to 90% for afternoon at-home drop-offs.

“We want to thank HCPSS for working swiftly to resolve this difficult issue, the students and families of Howard County for their patience as we’ve worked through these challenges, and the bus drivers of Howard County, who continue to show up every day to do a fantastic job transporting our students and children,” the transportation company wrote.

WTOP’s Alicia Abelson and Jack Moore contributed to this report.

Ciara Wells

Ciara Wells is a freelance digital writer/editor at WTOP. She is a recent graduate of American University where she studied journalism and Spanish. Before joining WTOP, she was the opinion team editor at a student publication and a content specialist at an HBCU in Detroit.

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