Isle has shortage of school bus drivers

LIHUE — While it’s certain that the upcoming school year for public schools on Kauai begins next week, what’s still up in the air is how each student who rides a school bus will get to class on time.

The state Department of Education recently announced it needs bus drivers on Kauai and Maui, and is even offering bonuses and higher wages. Derek Inoshita, HIDOE spokesman, said Kauai has a shortage of 15 school bus drivers with valid commercial drivers licenses

“The Department is working with our bus contractors and transportation partners to minimize any impacts to our students and families when the fall semester begins,” said Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson in a press release.

Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Services were both awarded new school bus contracts at the end of May, with Akita Enterprises serving the Kauai and Kapaa complexes and Yamaguchi Services serving the Waimea Complex.

But because of driver shortage, Inoshita said bus routes may be “temporarily consolidated.”

“As a result, students and parents are advised that wait times may be longer than in previous school years due to the consolidated routes,” he said. “As more school bus drivers are recruited, route schedules will be returned to normal.”

But one company says it has the drivers and buses that could provide the solution.

Roberts Hawaii served Kauai schools over recent years until this past May when they weren’t offered a new contract on the island. Percy Higashi, president and COO of Roberts Hawaii, said his company has about 15 drivers and school buses ready to go.

On July 7, Lance Mizumoto, chairman of the state Board of Education, called Higashi and asked him if he could meet him that day, saying it was “very important.”

Keith Hayashi, the then-interim superintendent, and Carlson attended the meeting.

“Mr. Carlson revealed that Maui was short 30 drivers and Kauai was short 20. They were exploring options to bring drivers in from the Mainland,” Higashi said. “We advised him that if they gave us advanced notice, we’d be more than happy to try to help. We thought that the meeting went well and they would get back to us.”

To Higashi’s surprise, it didn’t.

“It wasn’t until we prompted an email to Mr. Carlson on July 19, asking him to please respond to us, that he called us the next day that they were going to allow the contractors an opportunity to discharge their obligations, which means they’re going to do a hands-off policy,” Higashi said. “Therefore, they could not provide a commitment to Roberts Hawaii to try to assist.”

Higashi was taken aback when he saw an advertisement posted by HIDOE looking for school bus drivers just two weeks later.

“They went from being short 20 drivers on Kauai to July 20 saying ‘Oh no, we’re OK, we’re fine,’ then this past Monday we see a big advertisement saying that we’re short of drivers on Maui and Kauai,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I have the drivers in Kauai. I have 14 to 16 of them. If they need help, we’d be more than happy to help.”

Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Services and HIDOE did not respond to TGI’s requests for comment Tuesday.

Higashi added that just because they weren’t awarded the contracts in the first place doesn’t mean they have bad blood with the DOE. They just haven’t asked for help on Kauai.

“We could solve that for them. And that’s our point. We have a different situation on Maui, but on Kauai the two contractors were awarded bids through their really, really low prices,” he said. “We actually lost in Kauai fair and square, but our drivers do other driving runs for us over there because they’re ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) and they’re going to run year-round, not just during the school year.”

Being an ESOP employee at Roberts Hawaii means that each employee receives four to five digits of share value every year and that adds up with years of services, similar to a 401(k) plan, according to Higashi.

Because of the ESOP, Roberts Hawaii cannot allow its employees to drive for other transportation companies, but its drivers and buses are available to help.

“We have school bus drivers. We never shipped our school bus vehicles, they’re sitting there,” Higashi said.

During the contract bidding process, Roberts Hawaii bid $525 per day in the Waimea Complex, $435 in the Kapaa Complex and $440 in the Kauai Complex, according to documents provided to TGI from Roberts Hawaii.

Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Services both placed bids under $400 in Waimea ($372 and $348, respectively). Akita Enterprises’ bids in Kapaa ($361) and Kauai ($368) were similar to those of Yamaguchi Services bids’ ($400 in Kapaa, $364 in Kauai).

“We’re not going to ask them for any more money, but since we were like the second-place winners on Kauai, if they just let us help them out, we’re not going to charge them any more,” Higashi said. “But they never even gave us the opportunity to even do that.”

Higashi fully admits that his company was beaten in a bidding war, but doesn’t understand why Roberts Hawaii still can’t help.

“From 20 (drivers) short to ‘now I’m fine?’ Someone is pulling your leg and in the end, they need to just ask us. They got our proposals, let us do Kauai routes,” he said. “Last year, we actually shipped a couple drivers over there from Oahu. We flew them up, housed them, paid for their per diems, we actually had to just suffer the expense. And that’s why our bid was a little higher, because we were short. Right now, any of our drivers on Kauai are happy to help out the DOE.”

What Higashi really wants to know to is how HIDOE got in this mess in the first place.

“They knew exactly what drivers they had on their roster two weeks ago on July 24,” he said. They (Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Services) had to list all of their drivers and their qualifications to the department.”

As Kauai’s keiki prepare for the new school year that begins Monday, Roberts Hawaii’s drivers and buses will on the sidelines.

“We’re not trying to battle them (Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Services) and take a bigger area,” Higashi said. “We’re just saying we have drivers that can help.”

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