A sleek and sturdy Toyota Sienna, the “Cadillac of wheelchair transportation,” pulls up promptly at 7:35 a.m. each school day, then lowers a ramp so its 16-year-old passenger can roll on board for her ride to Montbello High.
Michelle Dumay is joking when she compares her daughter Fatima’s transportation to a luxury car — but only a little. Because, truly, it’s changed their lives.
Fatima, who uses a wheelchair and has a temperature dysregulation disorder that triggers seizures, once had seven seizures on the 12-minute bus ride home from school. She was on the bus with her nurse that hot afternoon when her body temperature rose to 103. The nurse and Fatima’s mother rushed her into the house and began cooling her down by cranking up the air conditioner.
Now, Fatima goes to school in a private car hired by Denver Public Schools, which contracts with EverDriven, a California company that moved its headquarters to Colorado in 2021. Fatima is one of 490 students in the district who get a ride to school from EverDriven and other services, including HopSkipDrive.
The students receiving individual transportation have disabilities or health issues that make it unsafe for them to ride school buses, or they are homeless or are in foster homes and need transportation so they can keep attending their home school. Federal law says students in each of those groups have the right to free transportation to their school.
The rides cost Denver Public Schools $9.5 million last year, a price tag that’s increasing not just in Denver but in districts across the state as the number of students eligible for transportation services grows. The private companies providing the drivers have become such a big business in Colorado that the state legislature passed a law last year stating that ridesharing agencies that have contracts with school districts are subject to state safety regulations.
The shortage of bus drivers in Colorado is also driving the expense, and some policymakers are questioning whether the state and school districts are handing money over to transportation companies that they should instead spend on recruiting and paying bus drivers. The legislature this year ordered the state Department of Education to convene a “transportation modernization task force” to figure out what to do to protect students’ rights and, at the same time, not deplete school budgets.
“Companies such as HopSkipDrive, EverDriven and Noah Care are being used to transport our students due to the perceived staffing crisis, a crisis created by low wages, subpar benefits and a lack of proper hiring practices such as advertising jobs at the incorrect pay rates,” Trevor Byrne, a bus driver and president of the Jefferson County Transportation Association told the local school board. “What we don’t want is for this temporary Band-Aid to become a permanent solution.”
Jeffco Public Schools spent $2.7 million on transportation contractors last school year, about $700,000 more than the prior year. The district spent an additional $155,620 last year reimbursing families that chose to provide their own transportation instead of using a contracted driver.
The district, which provides transportation across 770 square miles and to 140 schools, has contracts with EverDriven, HopSkipDrive and Noah Care. While the cost has risen sharply in the last two years, the number of Jeffco students using the services dropped — to 334 last year from 390 the year before.
Costs are rising because drivers are traveling farther to pick up and drop off students, and the expense of hiring contractors is going up, said Kimberly Eloe, communications director for Jeffco Public Schools. The district first offers the family of the student reimbursement if they will drive to and from school, she said. If not, the district sets up a contracted driver.
She acknowledged that the district’s need to hire contracted drivers is related to its shortage of bus drivers. Jeffco “continues to navigate the national school bus driver shortage and augment our staffing needs where needed by hiring reputable contracted partners,” Eloe said via email.
Douglas County School District, which has been short on bus drivers for years, puts bus drivers and bus assistants through several weeks of training to learn how to use ramps and other equipment for students with disabilities. The district also uses “smart tag bus passes” that students scan as they get on and off the bus, providing real-time data about their location. But when riding a school bus isn’t an option, as negotiated in a student’s individual education plan or IEP, the district provides rides through contracted transportation companies, spokeswoman Paula Hans said.
Federal laws require private transportation, but don’t cover all the costs
As part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government provides school districts with funding to help cover some of the costs for students with disabilities, including transportation.
Another federal law, called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, requires school districts to provide transportation to children who are homeless, which as defined by the act includes living in a motel, campground or another family’s home.
Federal law also requires that foster kids get to stay in their “school of origin” when possible. In Colorado, children in foster care are less likely than children who are homeless to graduate from high school within four years. Their graduation rate is just 23%, and on average, a foster kid in Colorado changes high schools three and a half times in four years, according to research from the University of Northern Colorado.
Colorado in 2018 was among the first few states to designate state money to pay for what had been an unfunded federal mandate for child welfare systems.
Last year, the state spent $1.7 million on transportation for children in the foster care system to keep them from changing schools each time they changed foster homes or went back and forth from their parents to foster care, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services. For those children, the state pays 80% of the cost, while county child welfare departments and local school districts cover the other 20%.
EverDriven, HopSkipDrive say they are solutions to the bus driver shortage
EverDriven, which contracts with 25 school districts in Colorado and works in 26 other states, has seen a 33% increase in the last two years in the number of homeless students it drives to school. Its Colorado business is booming — with 225,000 trips in the 2021-22 school year, up 119% from the prior year.
The number of students who qualify for transportation because they are homeless is rising faster than other categories, EverDriven CEO Mitch Bowling said.
To keep up, EverDriven uses a few hundred subcontractors in various states to hire and vet drivers, who drive sedans, minivans and SUVs to pick up students from their homes or motels or shelters. School districts monitor the trips through a web portal, and parents have an app that shows where their child is, Bowling said. Every driver is trained to help students with special needs, he said.
Before the driving services were available, districts had to rely solely on bus drivers who might have to drive an entire bus with a single student because that student was required to travel without other students. Or they could call a cab, he said.
“What we provide is cost-effective for school districts,” Bowling said. “Our goal is not to replace buses; it’s about efficiency.
“The most important thing is getting children to school because lack of transportation can lead to chronic absenteeism. We focus very much on giving all students that we transport the very best ability to succeed. It’s not uncommon for us to pick them up from one location in the morning and have to drop them off at a different location in the afternoon because their housing situation has changed.”
HopSkipDrive also contracts with several Colorado districts, including Denver and Jeffco. It has a contract with the Denver Regional Council of Governments to drive senior citizens to medical appointments or the grocery store.
The company said it’s not trying to replace yellow school buses, but it offers lower-cost rides and a reduced carbon footprint compared to buses on routes that only have one student.
Nearly all the districts the company works with, 88% of them in 11 states, are dealing with a bus driver shortage, spokesperson Campbell Millum said in an email. “Districts are having trouble recruiting new bus drivers, with many drivers having retired due to COVID. These shortages have meant that districts have had to eliminate or consolidate bus routes, expand walk boundaries, and/or revise school start times ranging from 7 to 10 a.m.”
In ordering a school transportation task force, Colorado lawmakers said they want statewide data on how many students are getting to school through contracted ride services and whether fewer bus stops and longer routes are affecting students of color and students with disabilities.
For Fatima, who uses an oxygen machine and a feeding pump, a regular school bus isn’t an option, said her mother, Dumay. Fatima’s nurse is with her all day as she attends high school, then travels home with her in the EverDriven vehicle.
“When you have a client that has high medical needs, it’s not just about comfort but it’s about keeping them safe,” Dumay said. “You always have the potential for something happening. We’re talking about a critical needs kid.”