Wake may spend $2.25 million to fix school bus problems

School board votes Tuesday, members differ on if Tata’s to blame for this year’s problems

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2013 

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Wake County School Superintendent Tony Tata listens to Kevin Hill, board chairman, before the two and other school board members go into a closed session to discuss "personnel matters" Monday, September 24, 2012.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

Avoiding a repeat of the problems that left thousands of Wake County students stranded at bus stops at the start of the school year will cost $2.25 million, according to school administrators.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a plan to reorganize the school transportation department, including hiring new employees to develop bus routes and manage the bus fleet. School administrators blame this school year’s problems on what they called an outdated transportation structure that finally reached a tipping point.

While board members agree that changes need to be made, they differ on whether a recent review shows that former Superintendent Tony Tata shouldn’t be blamed for the bus problems. Members of the Democratic board members had cited the bus issues as one of the reasons for firing Tata in September.

“Superintendent Tony Tata had nothing to do with the problems,” said board member Deborah Prickett, a Republican, on Monday. “He had everything to do with trying to fix a situation he was handed.”

But Democratic board members say that this year’s problems — which caused thousands of students to wait for buses that came very late or not at all — were so much worse than usual that Tata bears responsibility.

“Whatever situation that may have happened in the past, the situation at the start of this school year was exacerbated,” said board member Kevin Hill.

Tata, who is now the state Secretary of Transportation, distanced himself from the issue Monday.

“While he continues to care deeply about the students, parents and staff of WCPSS and is glad that the system is addressing longstanding issues, his focus is on executing the Governor’s transportation priorities of improving service at DMV and developing a 25 year-infrastructure plan that creates jobs for North Carolinians,” said Greer Beaty, a state DOT spokeswoman.

Previously, Tata had acknowledged that administrators were too aggressive in removing buses from service this year to save money. Additionally, buses are travelling an additional 10,000 miles a day because of the school choice plan adopted by a Republican majority in 2011. The plan was dropped for the coming school year by the Democratic board majority.

David Neter, the district’s chief business officer, said the transportation department’s organizational structure hasn’t changed since the mid-1980s, when Wake had 90,000 fewer students.

Neter said that outmoded structure means that the 15 district transportation managers are overwhelmed and overworked. Their duties include designing bus routes, handling parental requests, training drivers, coordinating maintenance, overseeing the payroll and driving buses when needed.

Neter said the system needs new staff to handle central routing of buses. A fourth area manager, a 16th district transportation manager, more customer service representatives and budget technicians are also needed, he said.

Many of these recommendations repeat those in a 2006 review that Neter said weren’t followed.

Board member John Tedesco, a Republican, said that if they had adopted these steps earlier, then Tata wouldn’t have faced those challenges.

“It was never really Tony’s fault,” he said. “Tony always said the problems were a long time coming and (were) not getting fixed like they needed to be.”

Board members say they need to make sure that this school year’s bus problems don’t happen again.

“We clearly have to find the causes of the bus problems that we experienced at the start of the school year so we don’t experience them again,” said board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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