The Jasper County School District has hired a bus driver following an investigation launched by the South Carolina Department of Education into whether special needs students are being served.
“Effective today, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, we have added an additional driver,” the district said in a statement posted to its Facebook page. “As a result, students riding specialized transportation will resume riding in Ridgeland, effective Thursday, May 5, 2022.”
The bus will resume morning and afternoon routes, school officials said in the statement.
“In addition, we are near completion finalizing three additional drivers to assist with transporting our students,” the statement said. “An additional update will be provided.”
Travis Washington, a spokesperson for the school district, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The announcement comes after the state department of education officials were in Jasper County on April 27 to investigate. The department received multiple allegations that students with disabilities were not receiving services due to them under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which stipulates school officials must make free and appropriate public education and its related special education services available to students with disabilities.
On April 28, Carolyn Bolden, the board chair for the Jasper County School District, said in a phone interview that the district would be adding at least four new drivers, bringing the total of drivers up to 14. In previous years, the district has operated efficiently getting students to and from school with 16 drivers, she said.
In a February meeting hosted by school district officials to dispel rumors surrounding the transportation issues, Dr. Rechel Anderson said that the district, like many other districts in the state, has had difficulty with hiring. To make up for it, the district had asked the administration and school employees to complete their commercial driver’s license certification to alleviate the strain of the bus driver shortage.
At that time, a principal and assistant principal were driving and another elementary school principal, clerical worker and paraprofessionals were in the process of getting certified.
The issues with transportation have been going on since the district lost several of its drivers after submitting a letter to them in June 2021 stating that bus driving positions would be “eliminated” and replaced with paraprofessional jobs. The letter was sent out after drivers asked the district for a raise, according to previous reporting by the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.
The June letter that outlined modified responsibilities, school officials clarified in another statement sent out last month, was the district’s way of getting drivers the pay increase they had requested.
After losing their drivers, parents were tasked with picking up the slack and getting their kids to and from school. Some have lost their jobs and others have been forced to go from full-time to part-time because of the lack of transportation, said one Jasper County parent, Jesenia Perez.
The oldest of her three children, a middle schooler, she said, is an athlete and often stays at school for team practices. Because of this, according to Perez, she is not what the district would consider a “consistent rider.” When the sports season ended and her daughter tried to get on the bus, she was told she could not do so.
“My kids were basically kicked off the bus,” said Perez, who works in the health-care field. “I’m having to rely on friends. I can’t leave every day to pick up my kids.”
The Jasper County United Association, a council made up of parents and community members that have banded together amid the bus driver shortage, is calling on teachers, students and parents to submit responses to a survey that they plan to take to the S.C. Ethics Commission. In a petition started by the association, numerous allegations have been made against Superintendent Rechel Anderson, including a lack of communication with parents and some have even called for her removal.
The SCDE officials were in Jasper County for one day last week, according to department spokesperson Ryan Brown. As of Wednesday, Brown did not have an update on the investigation.