School may have already started, but some yellow buses and their drivers still don’t have the necessary paperwork to legally operate due to a city backlog in processing permit applications.

About 350 school bus-related permit applications currently sit in the queue at the Ground Transportation Bureau, the city’s public works department told Verite News on Wednesday (Sept. 27).

The permitting backlog across all for-hire vehicles in the city — including carriages, pedicabs and taxis — is at 1,134 pending applications, public works officials told a City Council committee earlier in the day. There are also 55 renewal requests associated with school buses, said Sarah Porteous, the acting director of the Department of Public Works.

In New Orleans, school bus companies must comply with city regulations passed in 2019 that require drivers and aides to possess a special permit that must be renewed every two years. Buses must also be regularly inspected and permitted by the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau.

Speaking in front of councilmembers, Porteous explained that the backlog is mostly due to inadequate staffing and a lack of consistent leadership at the bureau.

The Department of Public Works plans to ask City Council next month to raise the salaries for two top administrative positions with the Ground Transportation Bureau, according to Porteous. The bureau only recently managed to hire one qualified administrator, as the position requires a greater experience level on an uncompetitive salary, Porteous said. 

“Consistent leadership has been a real challenge,” Porteous said.

Currently, there are only four people processing all the applications, Porteous told councilmembers. The backlog is exacerbated by the first-come, first-serve process, which requires applicants to submit documents in person. She said the investigators have also had to work overtime to inspect applications.

“The city took over the inspection of school buses without additional staffing,” she said. “It’s a significant undertaking, and that has sort of exacerbated the backlog issue that was existing.”

Porteous, who was serving out her last day at the department, recommended the city move the bureau out from under the Department of Public Works. The bureau could return to the New Orleans Police Department, Porteous suggested, where its inspection team could have more enforcement power.

Getting school buses and their drivers permitted has been a consistent problem since the city instituted the requirements three years ago, following a WWL-TV investigation that found many firms contracted by New Orleans charter schools were running unsafe school buses, hiring drivers lacking proper certification and utilizing uninsured buses to transport schoolchildren. 

In New Orleans, the local public school district isn’t responsible for operating buses, so charter schools must operate bus systems themselves or contract out those services. And in recent years, schools and their contractors have struggled to abide by the city’s safety inspection and licensing requirements. In 2021, only 16% of the nearly 700 independently operated school buses that make up the city’s yellow bus fleet managed to acquire permits a week before the start of the fall semester, according to WWL-TV. Schools have also struggled to find enough bus drivers amid a nationwide driver shortage. 

Out of initial site visits to more than 70 schools last year, inspectors found schools to be roughly 76% compliant with the city’s safety inspection and licensing requirements, according to Rafael Simmons, the NOLA Public Schools district’s chief portfolio innovation and accountability officer. Bus permitting was one of the district’s highest areas of noncompliance last school year, Simmons said at an Orleans Parish School Board meeting earlier this month. 

Rafael Simmons, chief portfolio innovation and accountability officer for NOLA Public Schools, in his office on Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Minh Ha / Verite News

Communication gaps may also be occurring, Simmons said during an interview with Verite News last week: “When you have a contracted driver, he may or may not be getting the information because I don’t know what’s going to spam, or he’s 65 years old and doesn’t even look at his email.”

Simmons said permitting rates for school buses have improved since that year, and that he hoped to bring the compliance rate for yellow bus and driver licensing permits up to 90% this year.

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...