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Menino orders oversight of busing

Assigns top aide to monitor drivers and dispatchers

By Stephanie Ebbert and Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011
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Expressing frustration over the continued late arrival of Boston public school buses, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has ordered a top aide to monitor dispatchers and drivers and demanded a meeting with leaders of the private company that runs the buses.

The mayor acted as one in four buses are still arriving late - some delivering students to school nearly an hour after classes begin - even though the school year is nearly two months old. Each day, 32,684 students are assigned to board 611 yellow school buses in the city.

“It’s a very serious problem,’’ Menino said yesterday. “I meet parents all the time, and they’re really frustrated. I’m as frustrated as they are. The system’s broken. It has to be fixed.’’

This week, the mayor asked his special assistant, Patrick Harrington, to step in and “ride herd on it.’’

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said her staff has started monitoring the four bus yards managed by First Student Inc., the company that is under contract with the district to provide transportation services. She called the monitoring redundant but necessary.

“All of us are frustrated, and we want all of the players to see this as a collective responsibility,’’ Johnson said. “All of us have to own this.’’

Yesterday, authorities called on First Student to remove a supervisor at a bus yard in Charlestown, where a disproportionate share of late buses originated. But the company and drivers have yet to be financially penalized for their persistent tardiness as called for in the company’s contract with the district.

“The bus drivers were willy-nilly coming in and out; they weren’t leaving on schedule,’’ Menino said. “And that’s part of the problem. If they leave the yard not on schedule, the whole trip goes wrong.’’

Still, authorities acknowledged that blame for the problem is not confined to the district’s contractor. The School Department implemented a series of changes since last school year, increasing transportation options for special needs students, closing and merging campuses, and consolidating more than 1,500 routes. But the district shortened the timeframe to create, test, and modify bus routes.

The department started devising routes last year with new computer software that tends to underestimate the time it takes to get from the bus yard and to pickup stops and schools.

At the same time, the district went from about 4,800 routes to 3,349 while increasing ridership.

“We’re taking responsibility for the routes that are tight and the routes that are off,’’ said Kim Rice, the district’s assistant chief operating officer who oversees transportation.

“We’ve been changing and changing and changing,’’ said Rice. “Some might argue that we have been changing too much. But I say it shows that we’re moving. We want to see that sense of urgency on the other side.’’

First Student representatives said the company is working to solve the problems. Each late bus can cost the company money: $75 if the bus arrives up to 29 minutes after the school bell sounds and $150 for anything after that.

Drivers can lose up to a day’s pay. But no fines have been assessed this year or discipline doled out, despite district staff witnessing three drivers reporting late to work yesterday.

City Council President Stephen J. Murphy saidthe scope of Boston’s transportation contract makes First Student one of the only companies qualified to handle it.

“It’s a catastrophe for the kids that are missing classroom time, and it’s something we can’t tolerate,’’ said Murphy, who once worked for a small bus company. “Now, our transportation system is promoting truancy.’’

First Student spokeswoman Maureen Richmond said the company would consider the district’s staffing recommendation regarding the Charlestown terminal manager.

“We’re working closely with our partners in the school system,’’ she said. “We want to rectify this.’’

Richmond said the company has made technological recommendations to the district that have not been implemented. Next week, city and school staff will meet with the senior vice president of the bus company, as well as its information technology specialists.

Each week, the roster of tardy buses has decreased slightly, dropping from about 37 percent at the start of the school year. So far this week, 24 percent of buses have arrived late.

Yesterday, 161 buses were late, down from 260 Wednesday, city officials said.

The gradual improvement has not been enough to appease the School Committee, which deemed the situation a crisis, or principals who find school days disrupted as students spend mornings making up for lost time.

“My frustration at the beginning of the year was that I didn’t feel that the district was being responsive,’’ said Patricia Lampron, principal of the William Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, which educates students with a range of physical and intellectual abilities. “Now, I definitely feel like the district has been responsive and put things in place to help, but it hasn’t solved the issues.’’

Buses at the Dorchester school still drop students off late in the morning, pick them up late in the afternoon, or simply show up empty because their route was switched and drivers received a blank pickup sheet, Lampron said.

A significantly disabled, nonverbal kindergartner who should receive door-to-door bus service missed school twice this week because of bus issues, Lampron said. On Wednesday, “her mother walked her more than 2 miles to school,’’ the principal said. “This shouldn’t be happening to any kid.’’

At Everett Elementary School, also in Dorchester, the last bus consistently arrives 35 to 45 minutes late, said principal Nicole Mack. A bus is considered on time if it arrives at least 10 minutes before the first bell.

“Even the buses that are 10 or 15 minutes late are still disruptive because we only have six hours,’’ she said.

Bob Goodman said that for weeks his son’s bus was arriving at Mission Hill School more than an hour late because of what he called an “over-long, over-complex, and over-trafficked’’ route.

“It was a victim of overconsolidation,’’ Goodman, of Allston, said, pointing out that one bus was snaking from Allston-Brighton, through Brookline, into Route 9 traffic backups, through Brigham Circle, and around Huntington Avenue, making multiple stops and getting snagged in traffic.

Goodman said he feared his son would miss the equivalent of three days of school a month due to bus delays. Ultimately, the district resolved the problem by splitting the bus route into two.

Continued unpredictability of school buses presents an image problem for city and school leaders who are fielding complaints from parents as Boston hosts a national education conference.

The problem, Johnson said, “has to be fixed immediately.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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