Waiting on the bus: Anatomy of a Wake school debacle

Budget cutting, poor planning lead to angry parents

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 8, 2012 

— Mika and Chris Partridge worried all week about their third-grade daughter’s bus ride to school.

The couple live in an attractive Apex neighborhood, where residents have typically gathered with elementary students to greet the big yellow bus and familiar driver that arrived at the same time every day. Until this year.

“The bus came today, but it’s not the assigned driver, so you don’t know if it’s coming tomorrow,” Mika Partridge said Thursday, strolling her infant daughter home from the neighborhood bus stop.

On Friday, no bus. At least it didn’t arrive until after the Partridges and several neighbors gave up waiting and drove their children to Apex Elementary School. They say the bus has arrived on time in the morning only once during the first two weeks of school.

The Partridges’ situation has been repeated across the state’s largest school district since the Aug. 27 start of traditional-calendar schools, as thousands among the more than 75,000 bus riders fell victim to a logistical nightmare of late, overfilled or missing buses. Interviews and a review of the process show a failure of planners pushed by the stress of finding places to cut the budget.

“We’re adding students, adding schools, adding routes and adding stops,” said David Neter, Wake County schools’ chief business officer. “At some point you reach this tipping point.”

A look back at the past two chaotic weeks shows that factors leading to the bus woes centered on cutting costs. They included:

•  School board members’ agreement in March to save money by cutting 27 buses and changing bell times, after hearing transportation staff’s promises that ride times would increase by only six to eight minutes.

•  A staff decision to park two dozen additional buses in August, even after busing problems emerged with the one-third of students who attend year-round schools.

•  Routes designed to reduce the number of buses in use that turned out to be unworkable fantasies, impossible to run in the amount of time designated. An N&O reporter found it took almost as long to drive one route with no stops as planners had allowed for a bus route with 24 stops.

‘This is unacceptable’

Meanwhile, parents who scrambled to drive their children to school turned up late for work day after day. Hordes of children remained at school for hours until buses arrived. As many as 2,000 calls a day burned out 15 newly hired, overwhelmed phone operators and a maxed-out voice message system.

“This can no longer be dismissed as simply one or two mistakes or growing pains or start of school woes,” Chris Partridge said. “This is unacceptable on all fronts.”

Adding and rerouting buses helped, but parents were still reporting problems Thursday and Friday, as well as showing a lack of confidence. In Apex, where some of the most severe problems took place, Diana Fierst loaded up son Jackson and several neighbors’ children into her car Thursday, unwilling to take a chance on the yellow bus’ timely arrival.

By Friday, one area loomed largest to second-year school superintendent Tony Tata, a former Army general hired in part for his military efficiency. There simply weren’t enough trained drivers on staff to handle the restored buses and redesigned routes.

“I know many parents are frustrated,” Tata said. “Those that have lost trust in the school system, we will attempt to earn that back every day. We are working hard finding solutions, fixing the problems.”

How could it happen?

Transportation problems dog the beginning of every school year, as parents stop driving kids to school and drivers learn how many riders to expect at each stop.

“As you found routes that are a little untenable, you solved that problem and it went away,” Tata said of previous years.

But this year was worse, as was apparent by the end of the first day. Tata called a press conference the next day to take responsibility and proclaim the system ready to take control of the situation.

“There’s nothing more important right now than getting this right for the parents and students of Wake County because it’s having an impact,” Tata said. “We’ve got to get it right.”

Tata’s apology addressed what happened. But parents had a deeper question: How could it happen?

The short answer came down to money. As in all areas of Wake schools’ operation, administrators wanted to save in areas that didn’t directly affect the classroom. They also wanted to improve the county’s bus efficiency rating, based on factors including the number of students carried per bus, which can cost it millions in state grants.

Administrators were trying to stretch a bus budget of about $66.4 million, $1.6 million less than in the 2008-2009 school year, when there were fewer students. Beginning last fall, faced with threatened cuts in efficiency grants, they decided to rework the system. Instead of each driver handling three routes, many would now drive only two.

Meanwhile, the board also was in the midst of a turnover of membership, a change in political leadership and heated discussions over the change to a new student assignment plan based on choice. The assignment plan has also contributed to the bus mess, with families who registered late often finding students assigned to distant schools.

After months of discussion, the revised school start time, bus route plan and the decision to take 27 vehicles off the road came to a final vote on March 27. Neither school board members nor administrators forecast bus issues other than the handful of extra minutes the routes were to take. Almost the entire discussion centered on the impact of changing start times on families.

52 fewer buses

Although the board had approved a reduction of 27 buses, transportation staff decided in early August that an additional 25 buses could be cut.

The decision apparently came even after several bus routes had to be redesigned at the beginning of year-round schools in July.

“The red flags weren’t coming up at that time,” said Don Haydon, who oversees transportation as the school system’s chief facilities and operations officer.

Haydon and Tata said all the simulations they had done up through late August indicated that the new longer routes would work, even though they packed more students and made more stops.

By the end of the first day of traditional school, there was a full-fledged uproar.

“I don’t get how the transportation department didn’t realize it was going to be a disaster,” said Sherri Bolton, an Apex parent.

Wake has been packing students three to a seat on buses. Some are so overcrowded that students are being kicked off and have to wait for an overflow bus.

It got so crowded that Jillian Schaller, 11, a sixth-grader at Apex Middle School, sat on the floor of the bus two weeks ago. Now her mother, Meredith, won’t let her ride the bus and instead has friends drive her to and from school.

“If the bus had to stop suddenly, without a seat in front of her, how far would she have been thrown forward?” Meredith Schaller said.

By Friday, Wake had put 41 of the 52 sidelined buses back on the road. The system now is operating 922.

Haydon said the desire to save money meant that staffers didn’t design new routes that gave enough time for the smaller number of buses to deliver students on time.

“We focused too much on becoming efficient, getting the right number of kids on the bus, trying to squeeze too many stops too great a distance,” Haydon told school board members last week. “We were overly aggressive in that efficiency search and probably lost sight of ... are we allowing any flex time in there for traffic or how are we focused on customer service.”

When the move was made to cut buses, administrators claimed it could save $4.8 million and also result in recovering the $3 million lost in state funding when Wake’s bus efficiency rating was dropped.

Even with Wake putting back in place most of the sidelined buses, Neter said the district is still saving money because it avoided adding dozens of more buses to keep up with rapid enrollment growth.

“We’re still saving,” Tata said. “We’re just not saving as much as we intended.”

Who’s to blame?

Several board members tried to distance themselves from the bus problems last week, saying they relied on the staff’s assurances that the new routes could work.

The problems came at a tough time for Tata, whose annual performance review is under way.

Some parents are also demanding that someone face consequences for the problems.

“If this had happened in Maryland, people would have lost their jobs” said Chris Partridge, the Apex parent, who moved from suburban Bethesda, Md., two years ago. “People would have lost their titles.”

Tata says he’s taking responsibility. He says he’s not assessing blame and that, once the bus problems are fixed, he will work on analyzing what went wrong and what lessons can be learned to avoid them happening again.

“I’m the leader of the organization and responsible for everything we do or fail to do and that extends across the organization,” he said.

But Tata also says the problems show that Wake needs more money for transportation, including hiring more bus drivers and increasing administrative staffing in that department to help develop the bus routes and manage the operations.

“We need to make investment in infrastructure and human capital here because we have very good people working very hard in the trenches to make it happen,” Tata said. “We just don’t have enough of them.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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