JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is getting answers from the Duval County School District about how it’s holding its biggest bus company accountable for safely transporting your children to class. The month’s long investigation uncovered potential civil rights violations, safety concerns, and more.
For the first time, DCPS is blunt about the job it thinks that company, Student Transportation of America, is doing. “Just understand that it’s not acceptable,” says District Assistant Super Intendent Paul Soares.
That statement is an echo of what ANJ has heard for months. Parents, like Shinika Hunt, told us, “I have no words to describe them at this time, because it’s just that bad.”
Whistleblowers working for STA came forward to tell us, “these kids are, you know, are in jeopardy,” because of safety concerns, like sitting on the side of the road- sometimes for hours- to be picked up.
Special Education advocates, like Dr. Angel Wilds, say the bus delays put the most vulnerable students at risk. “It’s a violation of their free appropriate public education,” she says.
But among all those complaints, STA has been quick to lay the blame elsewhere. Dennis Gallagher with STA lays it all at the feet of a driver shortage, saying it “is the greatest challenge in the industry today.” But DCPS isn’t buying that excuse anymore. Soares says, “obviously, if a company performs and can’t get adequate staffing, at some point it is there it is their fault. And they need to take obviously be accountable for it.”
Soares admitted it’s soured the relationship with STA somewhat, costing the company a lot of money. Action News pulled the list of Performance Guarantees, a fine of sorts, the district has assessed Student Transportation of America. Since July, the company has racked up more than two million dollars for multiple violations of its contract, docked for things like, staffing shortage, untimely service, untimely report submission, early college service issues, shortage data late, etc.
Thanks to a contract amendment, STA won’t have to pay the assessment for staffing shortages as long as it funnels that money back into hiring and retention. But STA will be docked for about one and a half million for the others and put on notice for future jobs.
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“The fact that we can’t get children home you know, in a timely manner for every child, every school is not acceptable,” says Soares, the fines are “gonna be going to continue at this pace for the rest of the year, if performance doesn’t improve.” There is an allowance in the contract for DCPS to essentially fire STA, and hire someone else on STA’s company’s dime. Soares says they haven’t done that because there are very few contractors out there who have enough busses for 95 thousands students lying around ready to go. So for now, it’ll keep docking the company’s pay and hope that financial incentive is enough to make changes.