Dorchester District 2 reports improved service after taking over its school bus fleet

When Dorchester School District 2 cut its ties with Durham School Services this year, it hired Air Force veteran Steve Shope to manage its team of bus drivers. Shope said he’s been able to improve efficiency and end a bus driver shortage.

Dorchester County School District 2 ended its contract with bus operator Durham School Services this year and took over management of its own drivers, and district officials say it’s made a world of difference in getting students to school on time.

Dorchester District 2 Assistant Superintendent Linda Huffman said the decision to cut ties with Durham just four years after inking a deal with the company in 2011 was partly a fiscal one — she estimated it saved the district “a couple hundred thousand” dollars — but the real reason for the change was to make the system safer and more efficient, she said.

“I can tell you that last year at this point in time, which is Day 22 in the school year, the bulk of my time was spent on fielding concerns from parents (about buses),” Huffman said. This year, she said, “I could count on both hands — in fact only one hand — the number of parents with whom I’ve spoken.”

The start of the school year in Dorchester District 2 was a marked contrast to the rough first week of busing in Charleston County, one of many school districts still contracting with Durham, where officials blamed numerous bus delays on new magnet school routes, driver shortages and broken-down buses. Charleston County reported that 78 buses broke down during the first week of classes, including 28 on the first day alone. In Dorchester District 2, one official said he saw “no more than three or four” breakdowns per day in the first week.

In Dorchester District 2 as in Charleston County, the majority of school buses are owned and maintained by the state, and lean budget years have led to an aging and sometimes unreliable fleet. Dorchester District 2 uses 139 buses from the state, but the district has ordered nine new buses and is on track to have 44 district-owned buses this school year.

Steve Shope, who started working as Dorchester District 2’s transportation director in May, said that while the district will always have to contend with mechanical breakdowns, his office has gotten a grip on some other factors that it can control. Shope previously served in the Air Force, where his duties included flying C-17 cargo planes and overseeing deployment and distribution logistics from a base in Kuwait. He said a focus on personnel and logistical issues helped ensure a smooth start to the school year.

Already this year Shope said he adapted to a challenge by using athletics buses to shuttle students to Rollings Middle School of the Arts, a perennially tricky job at the district’s only county-wide magnet school.

“It gives you more direct control of the driver fleet,” Shope said of the management change. “The district has supported us very well in the manpower that we require to staff a transportation department, and, honestly, the biggest advantage is that it allows us to take care of drivers the way that we see fit.”

This time last year, Shope said Durham had about 118 drivers taking children to and from Dorchester 2 schools. With low turnover and some new hires for the current school year, the total today is 167, putting an end to a once-chronic driver shortage.

For drivers looking for work, Dorchester District 2 has some advantages. The district raised the starting pay for drivers to $12.48 an hour this school year, slightly higher than in Charleston County ($12 an hour) and Berkeley County ($11.64 an hour). Drivers in District 2 are also eligible for state retirement and benefits packages, plus a $500 performance incentive in December.

“When you have a large force, sometimes you have problems with absenteeism,” Shope said. “Safety of course is our No. 1 concern, so we have in the terms for the bonus that you must have no at-fault accidents and you’re not missing a lot of work for perpetual sick days, that you’ve got doctors’ excuses, and just being on time.”

Paul Judy, a Dorchester District 2 bus driver, said he previously worked for two years under Durham. He was glad to start driving for the district this year.

“Dorchester 2 came in here and took over, and it’s the greatest decision that’s ever been made as far as I’m concerned,” Judy said. “We are treated with respect, with dignity, and we’re a family here in this county.”