By Ralph E. Moore Jr.

As schools opened last week for the 2023-24 academic year, the daily news was filled with Howard County students stranded without rides to and from school.  There were no yellow school bus rides as typically available to them, parents were exceedingly frustrated.  It seems awfully convenient to have a school bus pick a student up near her or his home and return them at the end of the day.  It must be reassuring to parents that their children will be taken to the schoolhouse door and returned home safely by a known bus driver, while they are at work, at home or some other location.  The convenience and safety of worry-free transportation must be reassuring to county students everywhere.

But what about our Baltimore City Public School students? How are they getting to school each day?  Where are the school buses for them? The simple answer is, there are none.  Public school students either walk to school, get a ride from parents (less likely) or take an MTA (Mass Transit Administration) bus to school. Public school students ride a transit bus or two, wait for buses in all kinds of weather and are potentially exposed to all kinds of trouble.  But luckily for them the county students have no idea what they’re missing.

So, when Howard County schools were short of bus drivers the other day, perhaps students and parents got a better idea of how good they have it.  There was chaos in Howard County due to a new contractor, by the name of ZUM, recently hired to handle school bus transportation for the county.  There were bus routes unavailable to student riders due to driver callouts, no shows and the unfamiliarity of routes by drivers new to the area. There was even word of delays in state certification of drivers.  

The chaos resulted in parents scrambling to provide or find rides for their children and school schedules held up because of all of the absences in some schools. The pre-Labor Day week of school started with 2,000 students who had no transportation to school.  The Howard County Schools Superintendent, Michael Martirano, was clearly frustrated and embarrassed. He said, “Quite frankly, I am devastated. We will do better, and we need to do better.” 

ZUM, the bus company, is hastily trying to hire reliable drivers.  The company is posting hiring notices all over the county and offering signing bonuses of $8,000 for new drivers and $500 a month for drivers who show up for work every day in the month. A lot of effort is being taken to restore convenience and safety to Howard County students.  So far, 11 of the 27 bus routes that were non-functioning last week have been restored as of the day after Labor Day. And yet, the Chief Operating Officer of the Howard County School System, Scott Washington, has resigned.

But, again, what about students in the Baltimore City Public Schools?  Why is transportation less convenient, less reliable and less secure? Is race the issue? I think so. Is it also economics?  Well, Howard County is the richest county in Maryland with a median household income of $110,133 while Baltimore City is ranked as 21 out of the 24 jurisdictions in the state with a median household income of $41,819 (in 2014 dollars). Let’s be clear, the cost of transportation is not an issue, all students outside of walking distance to their school are issued bus passes from the MTA.

The disparity is glaring and has always been that way: county residents catch yellow school buses not far from where they live. City public school students ride public transportation to school. There is a world of difference in the treatments of children.  What would it take to change this difference in treatment? Why not fix it? 

And speaking of getting a ride…

Chris Rock, one of America’s most popular comedians, was stranded in the Black Rock Desert at Nevada’s Burning Man Festival last week.  Roughly 72,000 festival goers were caught by surprise when heavy rainfall rendered the ground muddy and difficult to walk through.  The event, filled with music and fun, was shut down three days early due to impassibility within its site. At one point the entrance to the festival was closed and the public was urged by the sheriff’s office to shelter in place.  

The surprise deluge in the desert was an uncharacteristic rainstorm in an uncommon location. Folks were stranded with whatever provisions, in terms of food and water, that they had with them. They were advised to conserve and seek shelter.  It sounds as if it became quite a bit of a nightmare. About 64,000 attendees were still stuck in place by midday Monday, when the entryway was opened and people started heading out. 

Chris Rock got out early.  He and a few other celebrities started walking (trudging) early on and got as far as six miles on foot before a fan in a pickup truck gave them a ride.  Those who stayed waited for the driving ban to be lifted by the authorities or for the climax of the festival the actual burning in effigy of a 40-foot, wooden figure of a man.

Rock’s thoughts were locked on getting an ice-cold beer asap as he escaped the debacle.  I’ll bet he does quite a comedy bit about his Burning Man Festival 2023 before long experience and it’s going to be hilarious, as usual.

Transportation is so important for everyone.