The dependability of buses is not all that students have called into question. Many also feel that their safety is compromised—no matter the length of their ride.
“The bus is just so compact,” theatre junior Vivien Haim said. “There’s always that problem where there are too many people [on the bus], so everyone’s sitting in the aisle. The bus driver [says], ‘You can’t sit in the aisle,’ but there’s nothing to do. Do you want people to stack on top of each other?”
Despite the 37 percent of students who claimed that passengers of their respective buses have to sit on the floor, SDPBC’s Student Transportation Conduct policy says, “Students shall not be permitted to sit in the aisles or in the bus stepwell, or in any way which shall block aisles or emergency exits.”
“If students aren’t all seated in the bus, it becomes a safety issue if the bus has an accident,” Assistant Principal Leo Barrett said. “Or if the driver has to hit the brakes to prevent an accident, kids could be thrown around.”
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines that a typical 39-inch school bus seat can safely accommodate two high school students, 54 percent of bus riders claim that students sit three to a seat on buses, with 25 percent saying that this occurs often or all the time.
“It’s very uncomfortable for kids to sit three to a seat,” theatre sophomore Raunak Manchanda said. “You literally are almost falling off the seat.”
In addition to dealing with tight seating conditions, 52 percent of students surveyed reported feeling uncomfortable due to high temperatures caused by faulty A/C units.
“The bus is supposed to have air conditioning, so they have to do a work order [if it doesn’t],” Mr. Barrett said. “Usually, it requires them to take the bus out of out of service. And then, they get an older beat up bus that doesn’t have air conditioning … There are only so many mechanics for all the buses in the district, so it becomes a wait-and-see type of process.”
During the 2014–15 school year, hundreds of buses transported students to and from school without functioning A/C units, according to The Palm Beach Post. The following year, SDPBC purchased 60 new buses in an effort to combat the lack of A/C.
More recently, a raised property tax in Palm Beach County has increased the district’s budget for the fiscal year of 2020 to over $3.5 billion, a more than 11 percent rise from the previous year. SDPBC plans to spend nearly $14 million on hundreds of new school buses equipped with WiFi in 2020.
Despite this renewed focus on students, SDPBC has not yet released a specific plan to deal with the issues bus drivers continue to face.
An investigation by The Palm Beach Post found that many bus drivers spend their 3 ½-hour break between morning and afternoon routes in bus compounds’ aging break areas, which, as recently as 2016, lacked adequate restrooms or air conditioning. For this daily struggle, a bus driver’s wages don’t offer much of a respite—just $14.42 an hour, raised from $12.37 an hour in 2016.
“We’re underpaid for the type of vehicle we’re driving and the responsibility we have,” N43 bus driver James Zuccarelli said.
At a recent meeting with bus drivers, the school district discussed the prospect of further pay increases, but the specifics were withheld from those in attendance.
“At the last meeting they promised all the drivers … [that] they’re gonna give them something that’s going to make them happy,” Mr. Abraham said. “But, they didn’t say how much it’ll be.”