An early-week scramble to find transportation for public-school students in Grand Forks has more or less been resolved. By Friday, Aug. 27, school and city buses were taking students to and from school, just days after it was announced a school bus driver shortage meant there would be no service to start the school year.
Grand Forks Public Schools agreed that the decision to suspend bus services was made in partnership with Dietrich Bus Service, the company through which the district contracts school busing. While a fix has been found – the city is using its resources to pick up the slack – some issues still exist, however.
"We are disappointed to learn that Dietrich is not able to stand up busing services due to its driver shortage," district Superintendent Terry Brenner said in a statement emailed to the Herald after the announcement, which came late Monday. "As a school system that contracts with Dietrich, we only learned of this situation last Friday, Aug. 20, from Dietrich. The company has known since last May our projected enrollment and necessary bus routes needed on day one, so to hear of this the week school begins is distressing for our families and the entire school district."
But Dietrich General Manager Brian Yanish said the company has gone above and beyond for the school district. Due to what district officials describe as a quirk in North Dakota Century Code, Dietrich has been operating without a contract – and without a real guarantee of a contract renewal – since June.
“We actually spent the entire summer advertising and recruiting for drivers with no guarantee that we would be in place coming this fall," Yanish said. "We actually feel like we’ve exceeded the expectations that we have with the district."
What happened, and when
Although the pandemic is thought to have exacerbated existing shortages, districts across the region and the nation were struggling with bus driver shortages long before COVID-19.
Hiring bus drivers can be tricky in the best of times, Yanish said. The job is best suited for retired or semi-retired people who don't mind only working a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon.
But Yanish said Dietrich didn't realize the severity of the Grand Forks driver shortage until last week.
According to Yanish, the company held its regular back-to-school meeting with bus drivers on Monday, Aug. 16. Company leaders were startled to see just how few drivers planned to run routes for the new school year. Several people retired unexpectedly, Yanish said, and other drivers who were expected to be in attendance did not come at all.
Brenner said Dietrich approached the school district in a meeting on Friday, Aug. 20, to inform school officials about the driver shortage. Brenner said the shortage was discussed in a second joint meeting the following Monday, Aug. 23, where it was decided to suspend bus services.
That communication apparently didn't make it to some school staff, however. At open houses held later that same evening, school staff sold parents bus tickets as normal. Later that night, the district informed parents that school bus services would be suspended.
The next day, Tuesday, the city announced it would step in to help provide busing for students at no cost.
The district is continuing to work out a process to reimburse families who purchased bus tickets before they knew about the service suspension, Brenner said.
Operating without a contract
Dietrich Bus Service's seven-year contract with the school district expired on June 30, and has not yet been renewed. The contract was initially negotiated as a three-year contract with four opportunities for a one-year renewal, said Scott Berge, the business manager of the district.
The Dietrich contract was renewed each of the four times, but must be renegotiated every seven years, Berge said. North Dakota Century Code also requires school districts put out a request for bids for transportation services every seven years.
Yanish estimates Dietrich has contracted with Grand Forks Public Schools for 50 years, and he said it's rare for a school year to start without a busing contract in hand. But Berge said it has happened before. He recalls prior years when the Dietrich contract was finalized at School Board meetings in September, including last year.
The current setup – with the city offering its services – is expected to be temporary. It's likely to last a month or two, and that shouldn't be a problem for the city, according to Dale Bergman, director of the city's Transportation Division.
"I would say at this time it is not going to be an issue," said Bergman. "We will do what we need to do to keep the wheels in motion."
The school district's bidding period for transportation contracts ends this week, and currently Dietrich is the only company that has submitted a proposal, Berge said.
That doesn't mean there's any guarantee Dietrich will be granted a new contract, Yanish said, even though he expects the company will be.
“We’ve never been in a situation working with a school district where we were not able to have a contract in place," Yanish said.
With no contract in hand, Dietrich is not in breach of contract for suspending school bus services, but Berge said the district has still been disappointed and frustrated with the chaotic past week.
He said there's a chance the ordeal could be at the top of district officials' minds when they renegotiate the bus contract, but that has not yet been discussed internally.
"Basically, we didn't really find out from Dietrich directly about the driver shortage until 11 a.m. last Friday," Berge said. "So, frankly, we've been kind of scrambling these last few days to do the best that we can to find routes, and working with the city, etc., to help us out. We will certainly have to take this into consideration, but I probably shouldn't speak on behalf of all administration at this point because we, frankly, just haven't had the time to think that through."