How did the Wake County school bus situation get so bad during the first two weeks of the traditional-calendar school year?
As noted in today's article, a combination of factors led to the problems that caused buses to come late or not all and generated a daily stream of media reports. It ultimately stems back to a desire to save money that led to the adoption of unrealistic bus routes that Wake has tried to remedy by putting back 41 of the 52 buses it had removed from service.
"We focused too much on becoming efficient, getting the right number of kids on the bus up, trying to squeeze too many stops too great a distance, particularly in those instances where we’ve got three tiers: one, two, three schools in a row," Don Haydon, Wake's chief facilities and operations officer told school board members last week.
I think we were overly aggressive in that efficiency search and probably lost sight of the fact are we allowing any flex time in there for traffic or how are we focused on customer service when we do that.
That’s different from what we were doing the past week as we tried to fix this. We were trying to bring that focus on what the heck are we doing if parents are telling us that we’re an hour late or whatever, or missing stops. That’s not customer service. We tried to bring back that balance."
Click here for a handout from the school board meeting that will help lay out the chronology of what happened.
Back in November, staff saw that the state was lowering Wake's bus efficiency rating, costing $3 million in state dollars this school year. The search began to revise the bus routing system to raise the efficiency rating and recover the money without taking dollars out of the classroom budget.
"This is an extension of a philosophy to protect the classroom as much as possible," said Superintendent Tony Tata in an interview Friday.
David Neter, Wake's chief business officer, said the district has reached a tipping point as ridership has increased while the transportation budget has not. He pointed to how the transportation budget this school year is $66.4 million compared to $68 million in the 2008-09 school year when there were fewer bus riders.
When the bell schedules were adopted in March, the school board agreed to the staff plan to take 27 buses off the road. Staff said then that the changes were expected to increase ride times an average of six to eight minutes.
Haydon said they haven't yet determined what the actual difference is in the average ride time so far this school year.
In an interview Friday, Haydon said that as they continued to develop and revise the bus routes over the summer they determined they could do it with 52 fewer buses. In retrospect, he said this decision to take 25 more buses off than planned was an example of being overly focused on efficiency.
Also in retrospect, Haydon said the new routes didn't allow for enough time for the buses to be loaded and for drivers to run their routes.
"We all know that you have to be think about what time of day you’re traveling there and apparently that wasn’t adequately taking place," Haydon told school board members.
For instance, Wake says Apex Middle School Route 4 can cover 24 stops in 44 minutes. When a reporter ran the route last week, it took almost that long to run that route — and that's without having to wait for students to board at each stop.
Parents say that the route, which covers areas that weren't going to the school before the choice plan, is also extremely overcrowded and runs late. Wake didn't change the stops last week but did start the route 15 minutes earlier to give the driver more time to get to Apex Middle before classes start.
The bus routes are developed by each transportation district instead of centrally. Haydon said the problem is each district is very lean and the staff there has a very narrow time frame to develop the routes while still also being in charge of managing the 60 buses in their district.
Haydon said the development of the routes is part computer, via the state's TIMS (Transportation Information Management System) system, and part human. He said they need to improve the route testing process, potentially going to a central routing system instead of leaving it up to each district.
Haydon said they're doing an analysis of whether the transportation department is too lean and needs more people. For instance, he said the two to three team leaders in each district are often filling in as substitute bus drivers instead of helping the district manager.
Tata said he agreed that more transportation staff is needed, and not just drivers.
"We need to make investment in infrastructure and human capital here because we have very good people working very hard in the trenches to make it happen," Tata said. "We just don't have enough of them."
When year-round schools opened in July, there were complaints about long bus rides and the routes that were developed.
School board member Susan Evans said at last week's board meeting that the problems experienced at year-rounds should have shown that the transportation plan had problems heading into the opening of traditional schools.
"I’m a bit concerned that I saw the storm coming, and I know a number of people saw the storm coming for the opening of traditional schools, but just felt like we weren’t responding or adjusting to get ready for it," Evans said. "So I’m hoping that we’re going to try to address the issues now, but I’m really concerned that we would have put ourselves in that position where we really just didn’t have a chance to execute it well.”
While there were problems with the year-rounds, Haydon said Friday that they didn't see any "red flags." He said things looked "close" but still manageable as traditional-calendar schools started.
Throughout the spring and summer, Tata and Haydon said the simulations they were running indicated the plan would work.
"The simulations that reinforced that it was possible came together and looked good from an implementation standpoint," Tata said. "I got a pretty detailed briefing before year-round schools started. We tweaked some things and then year-round schools started and it was going okay.
There were some concerns and longer routes and so forth so I'm not denying that. But we didn't have the sort of late routes and missed stops that are happening to the degree that they're happening now. Once traditional school started, by Monday night I knew we had a problem."
Some things, such as putting three students in a seat and combining routes for nearby schools so the same bus picked up students for both campuses at the same time, proved to unworkable.
Stories of students sitting on the floor of the bus or being kicked off to wait for overflow buses emerged.
Haydon said another problem is that more high school students than expected wound up riding the bus on the first tier.
“If the first tier doesn’t go great, then that dominoes through the other tiers," Haydon told school board members.
After the first round of choice, Haydon said things look good because students were going to more proximate schools. But later registrants, once space in closer schools was gone, were sent to more distant schools that extended bus routes.
Compounding the problem, many families couldn't reach the district or get a response.
Wake had hired 15 temporary employees before traditional-calendar school opened to handle phone calls. But they and the phone system were swamped with voice-mail boxes filling up as soon as they were being emptied.
Schools and even individual parents wound up picking up the slack, posting the information on Twitter to let families know what they knew about the situation.
Haydon said they know they need to do a better job in the future of communicating with parents. One idea that's been discussed, he said, is letting parents look online or use some app to check the location of their child's bus. But doing that would raise concerns about safety in the form of sexual predators knowing where the buses are at any given moment.
Despite the problems, Tata said that the new routing plan has worked in many parts of the county.
"I've talked to parents all over the county," Tata said. "In many, many places there are no issues, particularly where we were able to do the pure two-tier implementation because that has given the time to do what we need to do.
And in the spots where there are severe issues, we are working through those and we understand that there's frustration out there. I see it. I'm getting parent emails. I'm getting parent phone calls and I understand the frustration. The trust and confidence is ours to earn back."
Tata says he's not assessing blame for the situation. He said they're in "analyze the problem and fix the problem mode." Then they'll look back to see what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
Tata says, as superintendent, he'll take the blame for the problems.
"I'm the accountable one," Tata said. "I own this. I'm working it and fixing it. I'm the leader of the organization and responsible for everything we do or fail to do and that extends across the organization."