Tata pledges to fix Wake's school bus route problems

Parents complain of late-arriving stops

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comAugust 28, 2012 

  • Help for bus problems Concerned about your student’s bus route? You can register a complaint online more easily than waiting on hold and the filled-out forms are monitored all day, school officials say. Go to wcpss.net/news/2012_aug24-bus to fill out a form and to see the Wake County school system’s list of bus tips for parents.

— Wake County Schools Superintendent Tony Tata took responsibility Tuesday for bus problems that have marred the start of the school year and he pledged to improve the situation that has affected thousands of students and their families.

As complaints of late buses, stranded children and transportation-related confusion poured into Wake schools Tuesday, Tata held a midafternoon press conference to respond to parents’ concerns.

“We know we have issues. We’re not sugarcoating this at all ... We’re going to resolve those issues because that’s what we owe the parents of Wake County,” he said.

Wake started Monday with 880 buses on the road transporting some 75,000 students. It began with about 52 fewer buses than last year to save money despite a projection that enrollment would grow by 3,700 students this academic year. On Tuesday, Tata said four of those sidelined buses would be put back on the road at a cost of $250,000.

“We probably were ambitious in the number of buses that we took off the road and we will put back into the system what we need to do to make this right for the families of Wake County,” Tata said, but he doesn’t expect to add many more.

Transportation problems are typical during the first week of school. But Wake parents are complaining that the combination of fewer buses and a new school assignment plan has led to unusually tangled schedules and hardships for thousands of children and families.

Tata acknowledged that bus complaints are coming in at about 2,000 calls a day, many more than Wake received at the start of the last school year. But he said Tuesday was a “marked improvement over (Monday)” and he expects to see continued improvement in the routes.

“Most of the issues, I think, will improve each day and parents will see much shorter ride times and much more efficient bus service by the end of the week,” he said.

In retrospect, school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said he wouldn’t have supported taking so many buses off the road had he known at the time of the spring vote that Wake is growing more rapidly than expected. Wake, which finished last year with 146,000 students, is expected to exceed its projected enrollment growth for this year. As of Tuesday, Wake had 5,100 more students enrolled than at the same time last year.

“I’ll be the first to say that we shouldn’t have done it,” Sutton said. “We all deserve the blame.”

At Underwood Elementary in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood, resident Tanya Churchill said Tuesday teachers were still standing in front of the school 90 minutes after students were to have been dropped off.

“These are not just first-week glitches,” Churchill said. “These are issues about poor planning that cannot be ‘worked out’ in the first week or two with these fewer buses and longer routes. The whole system has to be revamped to fix this.”

Southeast Raleigh resident Beverly Eason, learned at about 4:45 p.m. Tuesday that her 7-year-old granddaughter, a second-grader, had yet to leave Turner Creek Elementary in Cary and would not be home until after 6 p.m.

“I asked if she would be given a snack and the lady told me no,” Eason said. “It has broken my heart.”

As a cost-saving measure, school transportation officials said, buses in several areas are transporting students from two separate schools. For that or other reasons, buses showed up late to pick up children at several elementary schools Monday afternoon.

“Three buses for York Elementary School did not arrive at the school until 5 p.m. to even start taking children home,” said parent Jennifer Irving Kochman. “I heard that school choice was responsible for extra time and confusion.”

Kochman added, “Parents had to be called by the school principal by automation, but many were outside waiting for buses that did not arrive when the phone calls came in.”

Kochman noted that her second-grade son’s lunchtime is 11:40 a.m., so he was hungry after the many hours it took him to get home.

Tata acknowledged the complaints, but said the bus changes were needed because they’ll save $5 million a year and potentially lead to an additional $3 million more a year in state funding.

“If I don’t take the $5 million out of transportation then the likelihood is that it’s got to come out of schools somewhere,” Tata said. “So how do I do that that? That’s a fair number of teachers.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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