The Stillwater school district is suing the company that provides bus transportation for being as much as an hour late on routes since middle- and high-school students started last week.
And with elementary schools starting Tuesday and more than a dozen bus routes being canceled, already-frazzled parents in the district are scrambling to figure how to get their kids to school.
Stillwater's COVID-caused busing mess has been echoing across the state and nation.
St. Paul schools will be holding a news conference Tuesday to address the district's busing challenges. Students at several St. Paul schools will be given Metro Transit GoTo bus cards in lieu of school bus transportation.
"This is a very serious situation, and we're putting serious time and effort into resolving it so our kids can properly and safely get to school," district spokesman Kevin Burns said in advance of the district's Thursday start of school.
School districts around the country are experiencing bus driver shortages, which also have hampered other transportation providers, including the Minnesota State Fair's shuttles.
Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis school districts also have indicated they are substantially short of drivers. Minneapolis has offered to reimburse parents who drive their children.
Metropolitan Transportation Network, which provides busing for the Stillwater Area Public School District, said it will cut service to 15 routes starting Tuesday, when prekindergarten through fifth grades begin.
Stillwater sued Metropolitan Transportation on Friday, alleging breach of contract. Originally, the contractor said it would cut 21.5 routes — the half route being only in the afternoon — but over the weekend was able to secure seven additional drivers, bringing the number of cut routes down to 15.
In the complaint filed in Washington County District Court, district officials alleged that Metropolitan Transportation Network informed them that it would not provide service to 23% of the district's routes, impacting nearly 4,000 students.
That same day, Stillwater Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt sent an apologetic message to parents, requesting they provide their children's transportation themselves. Lansfeldt sent another apology note on Monday, and the school board will hold an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday to address transportation challenges.
Stillwater schools will open earlier for student drop-off to help families affected by canceled bus routes: the high school at 6:15 a.m., middle schools at 7 a.m. and elementary schools at 7:45 a.m.
"We've endured so much in the past two school years and this is not how any of us wanted to start our new year," Lansfeldt wrote to parents. "All of our Pony staff members are committed to making this an amazing school year, despite these initial struggles."
In a statement, Metropolitan Transportation Network said that its goal and Stillwater school district's goal remains the same.
"We were working diligently with the Stillwater school district until last week to try to find solutions to ensure all students had safe and reliable transportation," the statement said. "We will continue to do everything we can to ensure we are covering as many routes as possible and do our part to help alleviate the concerns and uncertainty of the families in the district."
The National School Transportation Association has cited numerous factors causing the unprecedented school bus driver shortage, including last year's furloughs, low pay, a commercial driver's license requirements and COVID-19 safety concerns.
Additionally, drivers are asked to enforce the federal mandate that students wear masks on buses.
Stillwater area families are posting on social media to find carpools or offer rides to other students.
"Parents have been posting, saying, 'I live near here, and I can take three kids,' or, 'I live on this crosswalk, who can help?' " said Natali Bohmof Woodbury, a parent of Stillwater students who runs the Stillwater Strong Facebook group. "You know that Mr. Rogers quote: 'When bad things happen, look for the helpers.' I made this thread, and the helpers came through."
The Facebook group grew by 20% in the 24 hours after route cancellations were announced.
"I don't care whose fault it is," Bohm said. "We can figure out the adult stuff later. We just need to figure out how to get our kids to school."
Still, parents' frustrations mounted. One Facebook thread had parents saying they'd apply to be bus drivers. A Stillwater mother of three has a middle-schooler who starts at 7:30 a.m. and two elementary-age children who start at 8:30 a.m., and was scrambling to figure how to add four half-hour drop-offs and pickups in the middle of her workday.
Denay Boyd, whose daughter will have her first day of the new school year at Brookview Elementary School in Woodbury on Tuesday, said she will be driving her daughter to school. There will be staggered carpool drop-offs in 10-minute increments based on students' last names. While school typically begins at 8:40 a.m., her daughter's drop-off time will be between 8:35 and 8:45 a.m.
In May 2020, the district voted to change its busing provider to Metropolitan Transportation Network.