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Stillwater Area Public Schools cancel 21 bus routes after vendor unable to find drivers

The district filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan Transportation Network alleging "breach of contract."

STILLWATER, Minn. — Standing outside Stillwater Area High School, Kimberly Phan is one of many parents caught off-guard after receiving an email from the district Friday afternoon. 

Stillwater Area Public Schools say they were notified their transportation vendor would not have available drivers for 21 bus routes starting Tuesday, affecting close to 3,950 students.

"My oldest is in 10th grade here, and my youngest was supposed to start preschool, but because of the busing situation and liability, I can't send my preschooler," said parent, Kimberly Phan.

The district recently filed a lawsuit alleging 'breach of contract' against the Metropolitan Transportation Network, saying the company failed to perform "one or more of its obligations" under the transportation agreement, leaving 23% of the districts bus routes not covered.

"As a bus driver for the district, it's scary," said Victoria Eckert.

Eckert works with the Metropolitan Transportation Network. She says it's concerning, not only for parents, but bus drivers.

"We figure as drivers, we will have extra kids on our routes and with COVID-19, and everything happening right now, it's scary having a lot more kids on our buses," said Eckert.

RELATED: Bus driver shortage looms over start of school year

While a nationwide bus driver shortage means substitute drivers may be unavailable, the district is warning parents about the possibility of delays or cancelations on other routes.

Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt, said in a statement, 

"We know how important it is to have safe and reliable transportation for our students, and we will do all we can to resolve these issues in a timely fashion. We are continuing to work on this over the holiday weekend and expect to have more information to share with families on Monday.”

As the district works to figure things out, parents are left scrambling for transportation options.

"My heart goes out for these parents," said Eckert. "It's going to be crazy for them and all of these drivers," said Phan.

The district says they have notified impacted families directly to provide as much time to secure alternative transportation. 

In a statement released Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Network said it has been "working diligently with the Stillwater school district to find solutions to ensure all students had safe and reliable transportation."

Adding, "We have a shared goal of meeting the transportation needs of all students in the district and strongly believe we should be focused on meeting that goal. Over the holiday weekend, MTN has secured seven drivers who were working temporarily in the district to permanently cover the Stillwater area. This will help ensure continued coverage of routes while we hire additional drivers. 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.” 

Many other districts across the state are struggling to find bus drivers, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin. 

Minneapolis Public Schools need around 50 drivers, according to a spokesperson for the district, and are offering to reimburse parents who drive their own kids. New bus drivers are also being offered $3,000 in bonuses.

St. Paul Public Schools are 40-60 bus drivers short, and are considering using nine-passenger vans and Metro Transit routes to fill the gaps, according to Chief Operations Officer Jackie Turner. 

A spokesperson for Anoka-Hennepin said the district estimates it's about 30 drivers short heading into the year, but it's unknown how the largest school district in the state plans to deal with that shortage. 

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