DALLAS — City Shuttle, a van plastered with ads for transportation to and from airports and hotels, was parked outside Harry Stone Montessori School in Dallas on Tuesday.
So was a town car, a long line of SUVs, and countless minivans and larger passenger vans.
At George Bannerman Dealey School, the line looked the same, except a Cowboy Cab was there, too.
"It's like, you know, weird!" said Harry Stone seventh grader Jaime Rodriguez. He was supposed to be riding one of the vans, but his mother, Maria, refused to let him.
"That's like me saying, 'Here stranger, take my child!'" she said.
Rodriguez said she had no warning that a major program change was going to impact her family.
"We usually get a letter from transportation," she said. "But this year we did not. We got no information, none at all."
Her son is one of almost 2,200 students now being transported by a third party vendor, American Logistics Company (ALC), a contractor of Dallas County Schools, which is the entity that the Dallas ISD uses to provide transportation for more than 70,000 students.
Dallas County Schools said it has has been using this third party program since the 2011 school year. Traditionally, they've transported about 500 students in special situations on about 100 routes.
But earlier this year, a decision was made to expand the program to include 2,190 students on 425 routes by adding students who attend Magnet, Montessori, and Vanguard schools, as well as children enrolled in the deaf education programs.
That meant all of those students would be riding in alternative vehicles. State law says routes with 10 or more students are required to have buses, but on routes serving fewer than that number, passenger vehicles are acceptable.
DISD says ALC contacted students whose information was provided by Dallas County Schools. But parents say they were not notified of the change and had no idea a bus was not going to take their children to school until drivers in unmarked vans, sedans, or even taxis showed up.
"The third party did send letters and make phone calls to everybody they had a phone number for, but as we all know, phone numbers change, contacts change," explained Dallas County Schools chief of staff Susan Falvo. "So some parents weren't not contacted because we didn't have the correct contact information."
She said Dallas County Schools has now set up a hotline for parents who have questions: 214-944-4511.
According to DISD, ALC credentialed 400 drivers to prepare for the change. Each driver was verified to have completed training and all vehicles were inspected. ALC personnel met with school staff, conducted dry runs, and brought in extra employees from across the country to help with the first few weeks of the school year.
DISD and Dallas County Schools said the drivers have each undergone rigorous training and have passed the same background checks required of school bus drivers.
That is reassurance for Dora Mendoza, who is leaving work early to drive her sixth grade daughter home from Harry Stone herself.
"What I compare it to is me calling a taxi and having a total stranger come pick up my daughter and drop her off at school," Mendoza said. "I would never do that. I feel quite uncomfortable doing that."
She said her daughter is on a route with one other child.
Mendoza also said the vehicles themselves make her nervous. "The school buses — even the mini ones — have the 'stop' sign that sticks out, and even then some vehicles don't stop," she said. "These vehicles don't have that, so how are they going to know kids are being picked up or dropped off? That's a huge concern of mine."
Falvo explained the alternative transportation program saves money and time. "The reason for it is, this shortens the amount of time that children are taken to school, so they have less of a transport time, which is very important," she said.
Dallas County Schools said each driver has an employee ID which should help parents know they are legitimate. Each driver also has a fluorescent placard labeling their route.
But Mendoza said some of those signs were handwritten.
"It's not enough; it's not enough," she said.
Dallas County Schools and DISD concede that communication with parents could have been better, and both say they regret causing concern. They vow that by Friday each vehicle will have a special placard on both sides to indicate it is an official transport vehicle contracted with the school system.
That doesn't change some parents' minds.
"As long as they're using the vans, my plan is to take them and pick them up," Maria Rodriguez said.
Dora Mendoza agreed. "This is not this is not acceptable at all," she said.