The use of 53 fewer buses than last year to transport a larger Wake County schools population added up to trouble for thousands of families Monday.
School transportation officials, working with redesigned routes as well as fewer vehicles, said they will have the delays and missed connections straightened out during the first week or so of school. But so many frustrated parents called with problems that 15 extra complaint-takers stayed busy, with voicemail boxes maxed out, for most of the day.
Caroline Lafiura of North Raleigh was so worried that her children’s bus hadn’t come Monday afternoon that she called 911 to have a Raleigh police officer confirm the kids were still at Hunter Elementary School near downtown Raleigh. She made the call after not being able to reach anyone at the school or the transportation department.
Her husband, Todd, picked up their two children at 5:30 p.m., one hour and 45 minutes after classes ended. Todd Lafiura said there were still some 30 children at school because the buses hadn’t come yet to take them home
“It hasn’t left a good taste in our mouths that our kids are in good hands,” he said.
Problems with buses running on time are typical of the first day of school for a variety of reasons, said Bob Snidemiller, senior director of transportation for Wake schools.
“I really want parents to know we can see what’s going and we will be working on it. The complaints are coming in, and they are being tracked,” he said.
Parents across the county complained about buses arriving late or not at all. This year’s issues are taking place at the same time that ride times are guaranteed to go up.
Wake lowered the number of buses on the road from 933 to 880 this year to save money and to get more state funding under a formula which rewards efficiency.
Meanwhile, the new choice-based student assignment plan allows parents to choose a school from among several options. That has led to students from the same neighborhood taking one of several different buses passing through.
“It wouldn’t have made such a huge impact if they hadn’t switched to the choice plan,” said North Raleigh mother Lee Rexrode. “They had buses driving by and asking, ‘Are you going to Durant? Are you going to Millbrook?’ ”
Rexrode’s kids go to Powell Elementary and Enloe High School, but buses for both were late Monday, she said. Snidemiller said bus drivers weren’t asking but informing students about their vehicles’ destinations. It’s too soon to know what effect the choice plan will have on ride times, he said.
The transportation chief acknowledged that parents were confused and bus drivers were delayed by:
• Routes that haven’t been completely drawn out,
• The decision to double up schools on some routes,
• Changes that moved many stops to main roads instead of the loops and circles of suburbia, and
• Celebratory parades at several high schools.
Anxiety resumed in the afternoon, when parents including Apex resident Elaine Cardenas waited for elementary students who were on double-booked buses. Cardenas described the scene as “chaos.”
Some 75,000 students will be riding the bus to school this year. Despite many parents’ long-stated desire to let more students walk to school, that nostalgic scenario will remain unusual no matter what assignment plan is in force, Snidemiller said.
“We have very limited true walk zones just because of the traffic and the road design around the schools,” he said.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this story.