Some suburban school districts continue to support Dallas County Schools, the agency providing busing services to many North Texas school districts, despite tardiness complaints and safety concerns including an increase in bus crashes and drivers recorded running red lights.
The reason why may be money.
In an letter obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, Coppell Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Mike Waldrip said bus services could cost up to $1 million a year more if they’re forced to use another bus provider.
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At the Dallas Independent School District, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is already considering options to replace DCS if the troubled bus provider can’t improve, but in 12 other school districts that use the same service many superintendents have stayed silent on the issue.
“Certainly we need to have our kids to school on time and safely. Whatever it takes, that's what we will consider so all options will be on the table,” said Hinojosa.
But just up the road in Coppell, Waldrip doesn’t want to talk publicly about his district’s relationship with DCS. At Monday’s school board meeting Waldrip refused to answer a question about whether the district was sacrificing safety to save money, and would only say, “I don't have comment on that at this time.”
Emails obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show in recent months Coppell parents have complained of serious safety concerns.
In August and September, parents reported students “sat on the bus floor between seats” because buses were so overcrowded. In another email, one parent complained, “it appears the district is trying to cover up the situation and is putting the students at risk by allowing this to continue.” Other parents have reported buses running 30-40 minutes late, causing kids to miss class.
One Coppell parent told NBC 5, “It’s a problem that should be taken seriously. If they have options like changing the vendor, they should.”
Waldrip sent an email to parents in November asking for patience during what he described as a "trying time" with the bus situation. But behind the scenes, he wrote another letter that suggests he has no plans to look for a different bus company.
In October, Waldrip wrote to Texas Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), who believes the legislature should shut down the troubled bus agency. In the letter, Waldrip writes, “…our best estimates indicate we would pay $800,000 to $1 million more per year for transportation services if we move away from Dallas County Schools … we strongly request you reconsider you recommendation to abolish Dallas County Schools.”
For weeks, NBC 5 Investigates has requested an on-camera interview with Waldrip. His office declined, so NBC 5 caught up with him at Monday’s school board meeting and asked if he was sacrificing safety to save money.
Still, Waldrip would only say that he had no comment.
“Guys, we don't have any comment on that right now,” Waldrip said.
When asked if they were going to explore alternative transportation options like the Dallas ISD, Waldrip again said he had no comment.
Coppell parent Todd Dillenbeck said he’s frustrated the district won’t make a change.
“My kids are my life,” said Dillenbeck. “That bothers me you're continuing to put my kids safety on the line because of a contract. I don't like that.”
DCS is cheaper than private bus companies in part because it’s taxpayer subsidized, funded by Dallas County taxpayers.
Waldrip’s letter argues state laws make it harder for wealthier school districts like Coppell to get additional state funding for buses, but when it comes to safety concerns, Waldrip’s not talking.
“Whatever is going on with Dallas County Schools, I don't want to play it out in the media. We are working with Dallas County Schools, so I don't have comment on it at this time,” said Waldrip.
Dillenbeck said he’s making his own change after witnessing a crash involving a DCS bus and buses repeatedly making his son late for class.
“His mom takes him to school now. We're not relying on the bus anymore,” said Dillenbeck.
NBC 5 Investigates has been in contact with the other 11 school districts that use DCS buses.
On Wednesday, Cedar Hill ISD said it has also had concerns with DCS for a while and is exploring other options. Some districts like Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD said they’re handling concerns internally and do not want to speak publicly. Two smaller districts, Aledo and Highland Park said they are satisfied with the service or have had very few complaints.
Some districts have not responded at all.
As for DCS, the bus provider told NBC 5 Investigates it is currently re-evaluating all aspects of its safety program and just replaced its transportation director last week. DCS says a shortage of drivers in Coppell and an increase in the number of students riding buses there has contributed to problems in that district.
In a statement released Wednesday, DCS said:
"Dallas County Schools is unaware of any complaints of children in the aisles on any of our routes. This behavior is unacceptable and against district policy and we encourage parents to call 214-944-4511 to report any issues so we can act on it. We can't act if we don't know."