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Lack of staff and communication: Sumter School Board hoping to address problems with school bus tardiness

The new committee aims to solve school busing issues after parents complained their children have been arriving to school and getting dropped at home late in Sumter.

SUMTER, S.C. — Sumter parents are worried about their kids missing class and not having time for homework because of late school buses. To try and fix the problem, the school board has created a new transportation committee. 

"It’s just really frustrating because by the time the kids get home, it’s a constant fight to do their homework," parent Elizabeth Barnett explains.

Barnett has six kids total, four of whom attend schools in Sumter School District. Barnett tells me in the mornings, she takes all four to school herself.

"I drive my kids because I don’t want them late to class because it affects their grades," Barnett shares. "They do not take the bus because I don’t want them to be late so I drive them to school everyday."

To try and find a solution, the Sumter School District Board has created an ad hoc transportation committee. Area eight trustee Jeff Zell is the chair.

"The busing issue I believe is a problem that’s been growing for years that hasn’t really gotten the oversight, the scrutiny it’s deserved," Zell explains.

Data collected from the district on the week of Feb. 20 shows out of the 15 elementary school buses, two were late arriving and eight were late departing. Of the 22 middle school buses, in the morning, 59% were late. In the afternoon, 59% were on time and 41% were late. 12 of the high school’s 37 buses arrived late and 15 departed late. 

Zell, along with two other board members, is planning to meet with the school district next week to discuss solutions.

"I think a lack of staffing is the core of a lot of issues," Zell says. 

"Sumter School District is not competitive with wages and incentives for our bus drivers," Zell details. "That is primarily what we’re looking at at this point. We don’t know what that looks like in the end, but it will likely be part of the solution."

Zell explains the committee hopes to increase pay for drivers while also ensuring the environment on buses is safe for staff and students.

"That bus needs to be as safe and secure and professional as we demand for our classrooms so we’re going to look at code of conduct, we’re going to look at recruiting," Zell plans.

Zell says the committee plans to do this by meeting with the district, the mayor and county council members.

"We can certainly put the energy at the county level and we will — there's no question about that — but this is a much larger issue. I don't believe it’s just a Sumter issue. It’s certainly a problem across the Midlands if not across the state and I would venture to say across the nation," Zell shares. "We’ve got to be comprehensive in our approach to this and that’s exactly what this committee is going to do,"

Barnett says she hopes this approach includes better communication to parents if buses are going to be late.

"I understand you’re short drivers. I’m not asking you to not have drivers or to make drivers out of thin air," Barnett tells me. "I’m asking for communication. If you know the bus is going to be late, tell us." 

Zell says the committee hopes to present a solution to the district by the end of this school year, if not sooner. 

"I want this process to be done so well and provide such innovative solutions to this school district that other school districts are saying, 'Wow, look what Sumter did," Zell says.

Barnett is thankful the board is trying to solve the issues.

"Anything can be effective than nothing, so I’m really happy they have finally heard complaints," Barnett says. "I’m really thankful that the board is actually listening to parents saying and standing up for the students because it’s not fair to them to fail classes."

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