There were plenty of apologies and recriminations coming from Wake County school board members on Tuesday over the bus problems.
As noted in today's article, Superintendent Tony Tata and board members apologized to parents and students for the problems last week. But also amid the apologies, the new Democratic board members worked to distance themselves from the problems, blaming staff for telling them they could implement the new transportation plan.
In addition, the choice plan was also a target of the new Democratic board members.
Democratic board member Christine Kushner said she wanted "to apologize for the bus debacle." Kushner called for an independent transportation audit, saying this year's bus problems "were like no other" year she's seen in her 13 years as a school parent.
Kushner also took aim at the prior Republican school board majority. She pointed to how Wake's state transportation efficiency rating had dropped since 2009.
“So what happened in 2009?" Kushner said, "The prior board started picking apart student assignment plans, making them less efficient. They vilified busing despite the fact more than half of our students take the bus to school to get to school.
Yet busing was made a scapegoat. But in truth, our previous system was less costly and more efficient than the post-2009 changes.
The prior board cut more then $4 million from big yellow school bus transportation. Then they added a countywide choice plan, a choice plan that from the start would require more busing. I can’t get the chorus of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ out of my head. You don’t know what you've got ‘till it’s gone.
I hope the community now clearly sees why the current board has directed the staff to move to an address-based assignment plan. The problems of base assignments are less severe, more easily fixable and less costly than under this experiment with countywide choice."
Kushner noted how they started this school year about 100 buses behind from taking 52 buses off the road to not adding another 50 buses to keep up with growth and to accommodate the choice plan under the old three-tier system.
"We were advised in the spring by staff that the routing system would make this work and we did rely on the superintendent and the staff’s recommendation," Kushner said. "But here comes the complication. The countywide choice plan has created non-contiguous spot assignments throughout the county.
In the closing weeks of registration, schools were full and new students were assigned further and further out. Hundreds of non-contiguous assignments are now scattered throughout the county, adding significant time to bus routes, breaking up neighborhoods and helping create the inefficiencies that we saw last week.
Continuing the countywide choice plan would worsen these problems. Wake County is too big for countywide choice. We don’t have the buses. We don’t have enough space in schools.
We can’t fix what’s broken about the seemingly seductive idea of countywide choice. What this experiment has done is exposed, in my mind, the pressure points on the system on transportation, on programs, but especially on capacity. We need more efficient base assignments with more contiguous assignments.”
Staff acknowledged how the late registrants were sent to further schools than the people who participated in round one of the choice process as being one of the factors that caused the bus problems.
Kushner also pointed to the new board majority's adoption of the student assignment directive in June.
"I'm thankful that in June this board took the courageous step to recognize that a choice plan has critical design flaws," Kushner said. "The staff is creating a hybrid plan with address-based assignments and expanded choice.”
Kushner also blamed the choice plan for creating the long registration lines at Central Office that have caused parents to wait five hours or more and miss a day of work. She said that will disappear when families can go to their base school to register under the new assignment plan.
"Base assignments are not red," Kushner said. "They are not blue. They are not partisan. They are logical and cost effective and we need to be objective of where we are with our school system."
Kushner also said that Superintendent Tony Tata has experience in logistics and "will lead the work to solve the problem."
Democratic board member Susan Evans said she was apologizing "with a heavy heart."
“I want the public to know that when I agreed to allow the staff to implement this new bus routing system in the spring, I did so based on relying on the expertise of the superintendent and the director of transportation and other staff who assured us that this would be feasible and would only increase route times by a few minutes," Evans said. "Based on all of the feedback I've received, and a review of selected bus routes that I have done myself, it is clear to me that the staff did not use realistic estimates of ride time or realistic estimates of numbers of bus riders for each route.”
Evans called the bus problems "the largest operational failure in the Wake County school system” she's observed in 32 years.
Evans also apologized for the long lines caused by the new plan moving registration from base schools to Central Office. She called it “one of many undesirable lessons learned from our experiment with the controlled choice assignment model.”
Republican school board member John Tedesco, like his Democratic colleagues, also apologized to families. But he took exception to the remarks made by Kushner blaming the choice plan on the bus problems.
“There were some comments that I would have to disagree with from some of my colleagues," Tedesco said. "While I certainly agree that this was unacceptable, I commend and appreciate our staff for taking action, putting buses back on the road and moving in the right direction. I do think it’s a bit disingenuous for folks to highlight the challenges that are specific to one issue, as specific to an assignment issue.
You heard that the state efficiency rating came into play and where our efficiency rating ranks in comparison to that. Our staff was very clear to us, and if you look at the state formula for rating efficiency, it’s not based on anything we did since 2009. It’s based on what other districts did across the system.
The way the state efficiency rating works, it’s a comparison rating that compares us against other districts in the system who are looking towards us, making changes, making adjustments to their district. They became more efficient. They got more kids on their bus. They got more stops on their routes and we didn't compete and compare with that anymore and thus the state dropped our rating in contrast because of that. So that’s where some of our adjustments had to be made.
It’s not right. It’s not acceptable. We’re working on it. I think it’s a failure on the way the state efficiency rating is figured out."
Tedesco also took aim at Evans' remark about it being the largest operational failure in Wake in the last 32 years.
“I also think the suggestion that this is the biggest debacle in 32 years is either seriously disingenuous or blind to the fact that we've had multiple issues over the last 32 years, particularly in the issue of transportation where millions and millions of dollars were lost in scandal in the last decade, or when we had mandatory year-round assignments that went to the Supreme Court of North Carolina," Tedesco said. "I think there were many issues that we’ve had to deal with in this district.
And our staff, I commend them for handling this issue in a manner that is responsible and working hard for the families of this county.”
During his board members comments at the start of the meeting, Democratic board member Jim Martin apologized while saying “I believe what happened was completely preventable.”
Martin, like Kushner, called for an external transportation audit.
Martin said the problems were preventable because, back when the bell schedules were adopted in the spring, he said he had asked how much additional mileage would be added by the choice plan. Martin said he's since found out the choice plan increased bus mileage by 20 percent.
"How we could have 4,000 extra students, 20 percent additional miles and still think we could remove 50 buses from the fleet?" Martin said. "That’s not math that I understand. I don’t think that’s in the common core.”
Martin also said that the bus problems experienced when year-round schools opened in July should have been a warning about last week's problems with the traditional-calendar schools.
“We had warning," Martin said about the year-round problems. "Why didn't’t we heed it?”
During public comment, speakers from the Great Schools in Wake Coalition also blamed the bus problems on the choice plan while criticizing the former board majority and Tata.
Former board member Beverley Clark pointed back to the January paper released by Great Schools warning about the problems with the choice plan. Clark said the former majority didn't take the time to study the choice plan and consider the consequences of its implementation.
“The bus disasters of the last week are directly related to the inefficiency of the choice plan," Clark said. "You can’t fix the bus problem without fixing the choice problem. I commend the five of you who voted in June to find a better way.
I caution you not to accept mere window dressing on the choice plan. And I ask you, can you trust the same inexperienced staff that created the current fiasco be trusted to lead our system out of this mess?”
Patty Williams of Great Schools said they have “a failing assignment plan” and “a failing transportation system.”
“How long should we let this go on before we let the superintendent and the staff that he has hired answer to the board and answer to the citizens of Wake County?” Williams said.
Williams also took aim at an argument made earlier in the meeting by GOP board member Deborah Prickett who said part of the problems were caused by staff''s desire to provide stability by allowing grandfathering. Staff has previously said that allowing grandfathering increased the number of routes that need to be served.
But Williams said that the bus problems would have been worse this year if they hadn't allowed grandfathering.
During staff's presentation on the bus situation, GOP board member Debra Goldman said she wanted to respond to the "inexperienced staff" comment. She asked Don Haydon, chief facilities and operations officer, to note how long he and Bob Snidemiller, senior director for transportation, have worked in Wake.
Tedesco also responded to the criticism of staff and the choice plan during the end of staff's update on the bus situation.
“Board members and guests were making comments who are using this opportunity to, dare I say, make political potshots at our superintendent, at our staff and saying ‘Mr. Tata’s choice plan, inexperienced staff,’ and things like this," Tedesco said.
What I heard though from our explanation tonight was that one of the more nominal impacts was from the assignment issue. Most of it was efficiency rating, recruitment, all kinds of things and I reject the idea that it’s Mr. Tata’s choice plan.
This is our choice plan. We’re a board. We chose it. We accepted it. We made that decision. Now some of you came on after the fact and I know we’re working on making adjustments and changes to that point. But the board accepted that with a bipartisan way and moved in that direction.
Ninety percent of the decisions that were made in terms of transportation this year: new bell schedules, timelines, buses off the road on the timeline you showed were with this board. We have to own some of this stuff, not just deflect it on the staff, not just deflect in how we present it to the community.
And I would respect the chairman’s earlier comments to us in email that we do learn to work together and communicate with one voice on these things. I respect many decisions that were voted upon that I may not agree with. But once that happens, I recognize that we speak with one unified voice as a board, and I would encourage our board members not to use this opportunity for political potshots on issues that we don’t like or on our staff and to use this as an opportunity to come together and work on solving this issue for our families."
“John, if you want to speak with one voice, then make sure you speak with our voice on occasion," responded Martin.