CARY — Angry Wake County parents and Democratic school board members blistered Superintendent Tony Tata on Tuesday, while blaming thousands of instances of late and missing buses on poor planning and the new choice-based student assignment plan.
Tata and several school board members apologized for the problems that began with the Aug. 27 startup of the traditional-calendar school year. Wake has put back 34 of the 52 buses that were taken off the road this school year, despite rising enrollment, to save money.
“We got off to a very poor start last week,” said school board Chairman Kevin Hill, a Democrat. “The results were not up to Wake County’s standards.”
Wake started the school year with 881 buses, down from the 933 buses that ran the road last year. This resulted in the remaining buses running new and longer routes and holding more students than before. “I want the public to know that when I agreed to allow the staff to implement this new plan, I did it based on the assurances of the superintendent and staff,” said board member Susan Evans, a Democrat. “It is clear to me that the staff did not use realistic estimates of route times or realistic estimates of riders.”
Evans said this year’s bus problems are the “largest operational failure” she’s seen in her 32 years in Wake County.
In the first school board meeting since the bus problems started, several parents voiced their frustration Tuesday.
“Would this be acceptable for your child?” asked Alicia Motyka, a visibly angry parent from Apex whose son has dealt with late buses in the morning and long waits for pickup after school.
“That’s over 45 minutes that are lost each day from homework, extra-curricular activities and, most of all, family time.”
Don Haydon, who oversees transportation as Wake’s chief facilities and operations officer, admitted that the transportation staff made mistakes.
Haydon said they had too aggressive a focus on efficiency. Wake tried to raise its rating under the state transportation efficiency formula, which rewards districts for using fewer buses to hold more students, to recoup $3 million in lost funding.
Haydon said they also underestimated the time that it would take to load students on buses and how long it would take drivers to run their routes.
In addition, the new choice plan caused problems. Families who more recently registered were given schools farther from where they live because the ones closer to their homes didn’t have space. In the new choice plan, families are given a list of schools to choose from instead of being assigned to a specific one based on their address.
Board member Christine Kushner, a Democrat, said the problems with the bus service justified the June vote to tell staff to develop a new assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that goes back to tying each address to a specific school. Staff will present the plan to the board on Sept. 18.
“Wake County is too big for countywide choice,” Kushner said.
Board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, said the choice plan increased overall mileage by buses by 20 percent.
“How we can add 4,000 extra students, increase mileage by 20 percent and still think we can reduce 50 buses?” Martin said. “That’s not math I understand.”
Kushner and Martin also called for an independent transportation audit. Haydon said transportation staff has been meeting with an outside consultant to review the bus situation.
Republican board members called the many problems unacceptable but resisted suggestions that the choice plan was at fault.
Board member John Tedesco, a Republican, also defended Tata against the “potshots” made Tuesday.
“I resent the idea this is Mr. Tata’s choice plan,” Tedesco said. “This is our plan.”
This week’s transportation changes come just in time for the first full week of classes for kindergarten students, many of whom will be riding the bus for the first time.
To help run the extra buses, transportation staff who usually work as mechanics are temporarily being put behind the wheel until new drivers are hired.