Garner Cleveland Record

Wake expecting improved bus service when schools open

Mechanic Joe Montague replaces a tire while he performs maintenance on a school bus before classes begin at the Wake County Public School System Transportation Department in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday, August 20, 2013.
Mechanic Joe Montague replaces a tire while he performs maintenance on a school bus before classes begin at the Wake County Public School System Transportation Department in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday, August 20, 2013.

Wake County school officials say a series of transportation-system changes means parents and students won’t face a repeat of last year’s bus fiasco when traditional-calendar schools open Monday.

On Tuesday, officials laid out the steps they’ve taken, including hiring more bus drivers, developing realistic bus routes and improving how parents can find information about bus service. With the majority of Wake’s 75,000 bus riders about start a new school year Monday, preparations are in place so that parents won’t feel as frustrated as they did this time last year.

“We’re in a position to have a significantly improved opening for the 2013-14 school year,” David Neter, Wake’s chief business office, told school board members Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, the board voted 6-3 to give initial approval to policy changes that would allow board members to be punished for violating the code of ethics.

The opening month of school last year was marked by complaints about thousands of students dealing with buses that came extremely late or not all. The bus problems were one of the reasons that school board members cited to justify firing Superintendent Tony Tata, who is now the state secretary of transportation.

Neter said that they’ve moved quickly to begin operating under a reorganization of the transportation department that was approved by the school board in February.

Wake has been trying to hire additional bus drivers so that they’ll have enough permanent drivers for every one of the more than 920 buses on the road. Neter said they don’t anticipate repeating last year’s approach, when bus-operations managers and mechanics were asked to drive routes.

New staff, routes in place

The routes have also been improved, Neter said. School transportation staff admitted that a number of last year’s routes were not realistic.

New staff has been hired who will eventually take over routing of buses at the central office rather than having it done at the individual bus offices.

Neter said that all the routes have been reviewed and tested three or four times. Drivers ran their routes this week during the same times of day they’d be on the road.

Neter said they’ve also taken steps to improve communications so parents don’t get a ringing phone or a message that the voicemail box is full.

Wake has hired additional customer staff to answer calls. A new automated system will take calls, either referring people to answers to the most frequently asked questions or allowing them to leave a detailed message.

Temporary staff will review the messages and route them to the right person at the start of the school year.

Wake also mailed parents a brochure this week on transportation information, including referrals to a redesigned website with information such as bus routes and updates on delayed buses.

Even with all the changes, Neter said, families will still need patience. He noted that issues typically emerge at the start of any school year, although last year was worse than normal.

“There are a lot of things out of the direct control of the transportation department that directly impact their ability to influence the transportation schedule,” he said.

The staff’s plan drew praise from school board members.

“We were looking at a 1980s model supporting a 2013 district,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said. “We’ve come a long way in six months. It looks like we’re well positioned to get off to a great start this year.”

Ethics policy revision

There was more division among members during discussion of changes in the board’s ethics policy.

The disagreement occurred over laying out means for board members to be reprimanded, asked to resign or be referred for criminal charges if two-thirds of the board were to deem that an ethics violation had occurred. The change was initiated after news was leaked to the media about closed-session discussions involving the recent search for a new superintendent.

Some board members said the sanctions are needed to hold the board to a higher standard. But Susan Evans, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco all voted “no,” saying it has the potential to create witch hunts and vendettas.