A number of parents from St. Malachy School were forced to scramble in an effort to find rides for their children after a Southern Iowa Trolley bus route from Greenfield to Creston was suspended in February.
"It all started because the driver that was doing the Greenfield to St. Malachy [route], he had put in his notice to quit," said Leesa Lester, SIT transit director.
Despite the route being reinstated after the driver's alternative employment offer fell through and he returned to SIT, the SIT board of directors conducted a discussion with concerned parents and school representatives, who received a letter March 21 about struggles with the town-to-town routes at its regular board meeting March 28.
The letter from Lester notified parents that due to rising costs and a shortage of qualified drivers at SIT, the board is reviewing three routes, on which SIT transports students to and from school. Those routes include Osceola to Murray, Prescott to Lenox, and Greenfield to Creston.
The letter continued to state, if SIT does not obtain the qualified drivers it needs, it may be forced to stop services on these routes at the end of the school year in May/June.
"If drivers are hired, and we are able to continue the services, an increase for a two-way pass from $57.75 to $100 per child will be implemented on these routes," Lester wrote in the letter.
Kraig Pennington, chair of the SIT Board of Directors, told meeting attendees the board has identified problems with finding and retaining drivers.
"We have to look at our budget and also look at what we're paying for salaries," said Pennington. " I want you to understand, we do see that and we're trying to fix that as we speak."
In the meeting, board members and SIT staff made various statements about why it has been difficult to find and maintain drivers; SIT driver qualifications require them to pass DOT regulated testing, in addition to passing a physical test and having a clear criminal background check. One board member said it has been difficult to find drivers because of the area's low unemployment rate. All board members agreed that the pay rate, which is currently $9.50 for new drivers, could be more competitive.
Lester said SIT's budget is a combination of county, state and federal funds; passenger fares and local matching funds.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the next financial year, you actually asked for less money from Adair County," said Tiffany Johnson. "Why didn't you ask for more?"
Lester said county funding requests are based off of the ridership totals from the previous year and calculated with a 5% projected increase. However, ridership in Adair County was down the previous year.
When asked why the school routes are not a priority for SIT, Lester reminded the group that SIT was never intended to be a school bus system. She said students, who open enrolled in other districts started riding SIT buses a number of years ago, and as the Greenfield bus filled, they added another vehicle to the route to accommodate the students and the general public.
When asked why the student's transportation is not a priority, Lester said very little income comes from the three routes in comparison to the fees paid by those who use SIT for transportation to medical appointments.
"What we bring in from the parents does not cover the cost for the fuel or the driver," said Lester.
Pennington said, despite raising rates over the past two years, it's becoming a struggle with SIT's current budget and the critical shortage of drivers.
"I understand that, but we've had a valued partnership with Southwest Iowa Trolley for quite sometime," said TJ Dunphy, St. Malachy Board of Education vice president. "We're talking kids' education here. I just think it would behoove you to research more into your budget to find other ways, other means to cut ... That's why we're here. We just want you to reconsider and think about what it all involves."
As the board reviews ways to maintain the routes for the 2019-20 school year, one board member reminds meeting attendees that SIT is not a school bus system.
"We can't be compared to a school bus. We are public transport for seven counties. We try to do what we can, and just like any other business, if you're doing something and it shows up as a loss, you don't really want to continue doing it, so you either have to increase your prices or you cancel the service."
Union County Supervisor Rick Friday, who is a SIT board member, said none of the board members want to stop any routes, it's just a matter of how to fund them.
"It also has to be cost effective," he said. "I wish they would have increased that slowly over time. A steady increase over a period of time isn't such a burden to some people, but we're at that point right now where we have to [increase]."
"We understand the school issues," said Lester. "Our heartstrings get pulled every day. We transport elderly people every day – for years – and we watch them pass away. Those people are our life. Even the kids – some of the drivers start picking them up at two or three years old, and here they are still riding at 13, 14. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but even so, sometimes you just have to take a look at [the budget]. It's really hard."
As parents make plans for fall 2019 enrollment, the board is expected to vote on the matter at its next regular meeting 1 p.m. May 23.
Driver job description, requirements and application can be found online at www.southerniowatrolley.org or by visiting IowaWORKS, 215 N. Elm St.