Parents should see improvements this week after school buses showed up late or not at all during the first week of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school year.
After parents took to social media to complain, interim Superintendent Jim Causby sent out an email, assuring them that problems were being worked out. He added that more phone lines were being installed, after a high volume of calls from parents about bus problems had quickly filled up the school system’s voicemail.
No one kept a running count, but Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said a phone bank was set up in the Transportation Office and Causby and Board of Education Chairman James Barrett took shifts answering calls.
One parent, Sara Maxwell of Chapel Hill, recently vented her frustration with the bus system and budget cuts in a letter to The Chapel Hill News.
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“My daughter, a brand-new first-grader, is getting to feel the brunt,” she wrote. “Her commute to her school, 3 miles from our house, is an hour each way. That's a two-hour daily commute for a 6-year-old! There are fewer buses, fewer bus drivers, and the routes are getting longer and longer.”
Tight state budgets have kept the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools from replacing old buses, LoFrese said. However, the school system has managed to maintain its level of transportation personnel, he said.
There is, however, a recent staffing issue that no one saw coming. At Thursday’s school board meeting, Causby and LoFrese gave a detailed explanation about that, as well as technical issues that contributing to problems with bus routes.
In early June, lead driver and a longtime bus route manager Hope Jones suffered a head injury after a serious fall, Causby said. She is still taking time off from work to recuperate.
“There really was no one on the staff that had any experience with (bus routing),” he said. So the Transportation Office contacted a UNC Charlotte mapping software consulting team.
“The first thing that we found was that our software was 10 years out-of-date,” he said. Current information was missing about traffic conditions, walking zones and hazards.
“The lady that had done the routing – I’m not trying to blame her, she did a very good job – but she did it all from knowledge she had in her head,” Causby said. “She knew all the local circumstances.”
In her absence, CHCCS employees updated maps as best they could, before calling in some routing experts from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for help.
But the department was still hampered without its crucial employee. By the first day of school, the school system “had to go with what we had,” Causby said.
Those beginning resources included some “novice drivers,” said LoFrese. At Thursday’s board meeting, Barrett said he heard stories about bus drivers asking students for directions.
Causby promised route changes by Friday, with additional improvements Tuesday.
LoFrese added that the school system needs a strong person in charge of the mapping database, to prevent similar problems in the long term. He also recommended sending transportation staff to Charlotte and Asheville for database training.
In October, CHCCS will have a new official count for the number of students that use the bus system. In the past, an estimated 4,500 of roughly 12,000 students rode the bus, LoFrese said. School officials think that number has increased.