RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey is skilled at calming first-day-of-school jitters. But this school year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every weekday with a knot in her stomach.
It’s been there ever since the first day of school, when a stranger in an unmarked minivan showed up in her Riverview driveway to take her five-year-old deaf son to Doby Elementary School in Apollo Beach. When she frantically called the school, Doby staff said her son’s school bus had been replaced by a third-party company called ALC Transportation.
"It’s like an insane nightmare," Storey said. "We have no choice but to put our son in a stranger’s car every day because our neighborhood school can’t accommodate his needs and the school district won’t pay for another school bus to pick him up. My son has to go to school and my husband and I have to go to work to put food on the table, so we’re backed into a corner."
This is the third year the Hillsborough County School District has employed the company to transport students who have to attend classes outside of the schools in their zone. Like Owen Storey, most are in Exceptional Student Education programs.
School district officials say thorough background checks and finger print scans are performed on every subcontracted driver, as required under the Jessica Lunsford Act. But multiple parent emails to school district officials and ALC staff argue that vetting isn’t enough.
One parent, Josephine Amato, even interviewed for a driver job with ALC Transportation just to see how it worked.
"We need to start making changes," Amato said. "We need to start putting our children’s safety first."
This school year ALC is charged with driving about 160 students to and from more than 40 Hillsborough County schools. The bill for one school day’s worth of rides costs the school district about $23,200, records show.
Amato, Storey and others say the drivers are frequently late and show up unannounced, if they arrive at all. At least ten different people drove Owen Storey to school before his mother’s frequent phone calls and emails with ALC Transportation secured a permanent driver. Still, his new driver speaks little English and the aide charged with helping Owen during the trip speaks only Spanish.
"I can’t talk to her and sometimes she doesn’t have a harness," Owen said, referring to the car seats the 50-pound child is required by law to use. "She said if I’m four years old I need one but if I’m five years old I don’t. But if I was on (the) bus I wear one."
Storey said the new driver once dropped Owen off with his grandfather, who isn’t named on his approved pick-up list. She drove away before calling ALC manager Hugo Donis and returning to the home to ask the grandfather for identification.
"I have maintained contact with the driver," Donis said in an email to Hillsborough schools Transportation Director Jim Beekman about the incident. "The driver reports to me every day and informs me how transportation went in the AM and PM."
Tracey Cardoso’s four-year-old daughter also attends specialized classes at Doby Elementary for deaf students, but only because her grandparents are able to drive her from their FishHawk home every day. In an e-mail to Beekman, Cardoso said ALC couldn’t provide transportation for her daughter until the second month of school, and when they did show up it was unannounced and in an old van with a car seat that "looked like it came from Goodwill." The male driver didn’t have any identification, Cardoso said, and when she called ALC for verification an employee said a female was supposed to be driving the van.
"I was in tears after my phone call ... and in my gut I knew I could not put my four-year-old daughter in this situation," Cardoso said in the email. "I am asking as a concerned parent for those who do not have options that you consider this process a lot harder, and put more pressure on this provider if this is the way you must go."
The school district entered a contract with ALC in January 2015 that has cost a little more than $1 million, according to school district records. Another $1 million from the school district’s transportation budget was earmarked for the company in September, when the school board voted to renew its three-year contract.
At that meeting, Beekman told board members that hiring ALC drivers is a "huge financial burden" that’s tied to federal funding. Not providing students with private transportation would cost the school district even more money, he said.
"We feel we could take that on once we get to a place of better financial stability," Beekman said. Staff are already working out the costs of hiring staff and purchasing minivans in a "preliminary business plan," he said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.
This story has been changed to remove an incorrect reference to ALC’s ownership.