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School bus operator gets $800,000 fine

Boston officials cite company’s chronic tardiness

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / January 7, 2012
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Boston public school officials have fined the private provider of bus services $800,000 for chronic tardiness, even as 1 in 10 buses are still arriving after the first bell rings.

City and school officials have struggled to get students to class on time since the school year began, when up to 37 percent of buses arrived as much as an hour late. The school system gained a degree of on-time consistency through a series of staffing changes, route adjustments, and micromanaging of First Student Inc., the company under contract to ferry students to and from school.

School Department staff monitored the four bus yards that First Student manages, arriving at lots before dawn to track when drivers arrived and buses left. Each late bus costs the company $75 if it arrives up to 29 minutes after the school bell sounds, and $150 for any time after that. In December, the school system fined First Student about $800,000 for its late runs during the first half of the academic year.

School Department spokesman Matthew Wilder said the company is appealing the fines. The department’s contract with the company runs through 2013.

A spokeswoman in the Cincinnati corporate office of First Student said she was unaware of the penalties but issued a statement that said: “We remain committed to delivering excellent customer service for the district, as well as the families we serve each day. We have been working very closely with the Boston public school district to resolve issues and have made extraordinary progress since the beginning of the school year.’’

Tardy buses are a reality in congested urban cities such as Boston, where 32,684 students are assigned to ride more than 600 school buses. Traffic snarls. Buses break down. Students run late, and buses wait.

But industry experts, school officials, and city leaders agree that consistently getting 90 percent of buses to school on time is not good enough.

“We’re glad we’ve seen improvement, but no one will be satisfied until every single bus and every single child gets to school on time,’’ said the Rev. Gregory Groover Sr., chairman of the School Committee. “That’s the minimum expectation, and we need to continue to aggressively move to that point.’’

No level of tardiness is acceptable in the school transportation business, but sometimes late runs are unavoidable, said Robert Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. Unless the lateness is attributable to circumstances beyond the drivers’ or contractors’ control, he said, “buses should be on time.’’

Boston’s tardiness problem can be blamed on many factors, including increasing transportation options for special needs students, closing and merging schools, and consolidating more than 1,500 routes. The School Department also shortened the time to create, test, and modify bus routes.

Since November, authorities have addressed the work culture at bus yards, including a failure of management to discipline late drivers, and fixed glitches in the fleet management system, which records when a bus leaves the yard and the time it takes to run a route.

“Things have calmed down, but for anyone to think the crisis is over, it’s not,’’ said Patrick Harrington, special assistant to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The mayor asked Harrington to personally take charge of the bus crisis as parent ire flared.

Harrington is assembling an advisory council of companies in the delivery business - UPS, FedEx, the US Postal Service, the MBTA, and DHL - to help the school system with the logistics of navigating the city.

“We’re managing the crisis,’’ he said, “because on any given day, anything could happen.’’

On Wednesday, the first day back from winter recess, the maddening delays returned. Drivers were allowed to select new routes in December, and Harrington said about 80 percent of the bus routes had new drivers. The cold snap combined with the many route changes caused one-third of buses to run late Wednesday.

The situation began to stabilize yesterday. According to the district, 136 buses, or about 10.6 percent, arrived after the bell.

Marc Lipsitch’s two daughters were among the tardy. Bus MS146 did not show up until 8:25 a.m., 21 minutes late.

The Jamaica Plain father did not put his daughters, who attend Hernandez K-8 School in Roxbury, on the bus Wednesday and Thursday. He knew the girls had a new driver and figured it would take a couple of days to work out kinks.

Yesterday morning, “I cautiously tried out the buses for the first time, having not trusted that the first days would go well,’’ he said. “It was a mess.’’

Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, used his smartphone to track the school bus, watching it take an alternate route, which he was told could change again because the driver was a temporary worker.

“The combination of daily route changes, rude drivers, almost an hour variation from day to day in bus times, and needing to have an iPhone in order to be able to flag down the bus from an arbitrary direction is really beyond the pale,’’ he wrote in an e-mail to school officials. “The ‘gains,’ i.e. adequate service, of November and December are now gone for me . . . and I suspect for much of the city.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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