RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey has learned all the tricks to get her kids out of bed and off to school every morning. But this year, Storey says she's the one waking up every school day with a knot in her stomach.
It's been there ever since the first day of classes, when a contracted driver from American Logistics Company pulled into her Riverview driveway to take Owen, her 5-year-old deaf son, to Doby Elementary School in Apollo Beach.
"They had no identification, no logo on the van and they didn't even bring car seats, I watched them try to strap my 50-pound kid into the front seat," Storey said. "Now we're halfway through the year and still fighting for my son to get a safe ride to school .?.?. It's like an insane nightmare."
This is the fourth year the Hillsborough School District has used American Logistics Company to transport students protected by federal laws that allow them to attend a different school than the one assigned to their home address. Like Owen Storey, most are in specialized Exceptional Student Education programs. Some moved to other counties, but under the federal McKinney-Vento law, the School District must provide transportation to their school of origin.
The School District has paid out $1.4 million to ALC Transportation since entering a contract with the company in December 2013, district officials said.
That money is paying for 215 ALC vans to take 240 Hillsborough County students to and from school this academic year. Last year, the district paid for 103 vehicles to transport 163 students.
Yet even with the high price tag, parents such as Storey say they shouldn't have to fear for their child's safety when they're being driven to and from school.
Although the same driver is supposed to transport a student all year, at least 10 different people drove Owen to school before frequent phone calls and emails to ALC secured a permanent driver, his mother said.
His new driver and transportation aide speak little English, she said. They recently dropped Owen off with his grandfather, who isn't named on his approved pick-up list, and drove away before coming back minutes later to ask the grandfather for his identification.
After Storey complained to School District officials about the incident, an employee with ALC field operations said the driver tried to call his office to confirm the man waiting for the boy in his driveway was really his grandfather, but "her phone signal was not allowing her to make outgoing calls." She drove down the street to get better service, the employee said.
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Friday, ALC vice president of accounts Gregg Prettyman said Owen will have a new driver on Monday because "the current driver no longer wants to be subject to the abuse she endured."
"ALC's field operations team has met with Owen's mother who informed us in person that everything was going fine," Prettyman said in his email. "However, the mother has been confrontational, combative and verbally abusive to the driver.''
ALC provides transportation services to 200 school districts in 15 states, including districts where Hillsborough County schools transportation director Jim Beekman has previously worked.
"This is the first year that I have dealt with any parent issue," he said in an email.
In addition to ALC's own vetting process, Hillsborough fingerprints and runs background checks on all drivers hired to transport students. Once they pass a background check, each driver is issued a yellow statewide ID badge valid for five years.
Prettyman and Beekman acknowledged that while ALC requires all drivers to speak English, for many it's not their first language. Beekman also said one male ALC driver was "immediately terminated" this school year after he arrived unannounced at Tracey Cardoso's home to take her 4-year-old deaf daughter to school without any identification. When Cardoso called ALC for verification, an employee said a woman 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 4-year-old daughter in this situation," Cardoso wrote in an email to Beekman. "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."
ALC was hired in 2013 because it wasn't financially feasible to continue transporting these students with district school buses and staff, Beekman said.
"The School District utilized school buses that at times carried only one or two students," Beekman's email said. "The current cost for these buses is more than $100,000 and they require a (commercial drivers license) to operate."
The same year the California-based company began driving Hillsborough students it was ousted from Dallas County schools in Texas. In September 2013, the Dallas Morning News reported that the School District returned to using school buses to transport special-needs students after parents flooded district offices with safety concerns and complaints about poor communication with drivers.
Pinellas County schools are required to provide specialized transportation to nearly 1,800 students, officials said. District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the $12 million in transportation funding the state provides every year is enough for the district to provide its own buses and drivers.
Of the $12 million allocated to Pinellas schools this year, about $2.5 million was earmarked for transporting ESE students, Wolf said.
Beekman estimated it would cost the School District about $2.1 million to purchase transportation vans similar to what ALC Transportation provides. District staff ran a cost analysis for every student that requests specialized transportation to find the most efficient ride. Depending on the route, the School District can often use its own school buses, he said. Yet staff also try to avoid forcing students to be on a bus for an extended period of time.
The Hillsborough School Board reapproved its contract with ALC in September after Beekman explained that bringing those transportation services in-house would have to wait until the School District "gets to a place of better financial stability."
Staff are already working out the costs in a "preliminary business plan," he said.
But for now, Kayla Storey said she still feels helpless when her son complains about his ride to school.
"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," she said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.
This story has been changed to remove an incorrect reference to American Logistics Company's ownership.