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School bus delays anger parents

Boston’s new software causes late pickups

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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A new software program that aims to make Boston school bus routes run more efficiently has instead caused many buses to arrive at school at least a half hour late, forcing some students to miss classes in the morning and endure long waits in the afternoon.

Since school opened Sept. 8, school officials have received a flood of complaints from parents, principals, and even bus drivers, whose union filed a grievance last week over the software. Some parents are organizing a protest.

The late-morning drop-offs have been particularly frustrating for many of the district’s underperforming schools, which added about a half hour to the school day this fall, only to have the time eaten away by the transportation snafus.

“It’s been crazy,’’ said Derek Williams, parent of a pupil at the William Monroe Trotter School in Dorchester, one of the schools that extended its day this fall. “Our school starts at 9:15, and kids have been coming to school at 9:40 and close to 10 o’clock.’’

In some cases, parents are driving their children to school because the buses never show up.

School officials acknowledge that there have been problems with the new software, but they said they have moved as quickly as possible to address them. Yesterday, they began the bus routes with a number of changes, which appears to have yielded far fewer complaints than last week, said Michael Goar, deputy superintendent.

“As we implemented the new software, there were some bus routes that were very tight,’’ Goar said. “We didn’t give enough time between stops, and that made buses late. . . . We feel terrible for any inconveniences we have caused for students and parents.’’

Goar said he believes that only a fraction of the approximately 40,000 students the district buses were arriving late to school, but he could not offer specifics. Bus drivers who are late reaching a school must fill out a report, but Goar said a tally of those reports was not yet available.

The School Department said last night that it had extended its back-to-school hot line (617-635-9046) through Oct. 1 and encouraged parents to report delays.

The software, Versatrans, represented what was supposed to be a 21st century leap into school bus routing, replacing a decades-old system of mapping bus routes with pencil and paper. The program utilizes online street maps to plot the most efficient routes, which bus drivers can call up on their Global Positioning System devices.

The revamped bus routes have enabled the district to cut 32 buses from the roadways this year, resulting in a fleet of 585. It also reduced the number of hours many bus drivers spend behind the wheel, from about nine hours a day to eight. It is a boon for a school district trying to keep down ever-rising transportation costs, which this year are about $77 million.

But transportation officials hit snags in executing the computerized routes. Although they have the capability of adjusting times and the routes based on their knowledge of problem traffic areas, they did not anticipate other obstacles, such as construction on Blue Hill Avenue. They also sometimes failed to allot enough time at some bus stops for children to get seated and settled, causing further delays.

With bus drivers typically doing three separate routes in the morning, a poorly planned route on the first run can cause delays on the second and third runs. That also applies to the three afternoon runs buses typically do.

“It’s been total chaos,’’ said Frantz Mendes, president of the school bus drivers’ union. “It’s unfair to students and unfair to our drivers. . . . It’s not one bus arriving late. It’s hundreds of buses arriving late.’’

Mendes said that the computerized routes severely underestimate the time it takes to pick up all the students and get them to school on time. Even as the school district changes routes, he said, the intended fixes create new problems.

On Sept. 13, the union filed a grievance and sent a flier to drivers encouraging them to file reports about the problems and not to jeopardize safety by rushing through poorly timed routes.

Both a union official and a school transportation administrator were on hand yesterday at the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury, where buses were arriving last week 40 or more minutes late. Many buses were stuck in traffic outside the school as frustrated parents drove their children to school.

Yesterday, buses arrived sooner on newly mapped routes, although few if any actually dropped children off before breakfast, union officials said.

Stephanie Bode Ward, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at the Hernandez, said that on two days last week, the bus never picked up her daughter. She is hoping that the new bus routes will resolve the problems.

“As frustrated as I have been, I must say that the responses by administrators and the mayor’s office have been positive,’’ Ward wrote in e-mail, placing blame on the software. “The bus drivers, as frustrated as they must be with the situation, have been pleasant in a difficult situation and trying their hardest.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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