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The phrase “it is not working” was repeated multiple times by members of the public at the September 19 Board of Education meeting in response to the reconfigured transportation system. School board members went on to support Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue’s proposal to form a task force to look at the transportation situation.
Members of the public spoke for roughly 50 minutes at the school board’s meeting on Tuesday, mostly expressing concerns and frustrations with the two-tier bus system implemented this school year. (Public participation speakers also voiced concerns at the previous school board meeting.)
After a committee — put together by former Superintendent of Schools Dr Joseph V. Erardi, Jr — researched topics around changing school start times for high school and middle school aged students, the Board of Education in June approved the new transportation reconfiguration.
At this week’s meeting, Dr Rodrigue expressed her appreciation for parents who shared concerns with the district since the start of the school year, along with their patience and respect.
Dr Rodrigue also shared some of the efforts made by the district in the first few weeks of school. When the district heard concerns — like students sitting on the floor of a bus because they could not find a seat — she said the issues were “validated and we cleared that up.” When complaints of too many students sitting in a seat were heard, Dr Rodrigue said the district checked video of the buses.
“We went through video and collected data,” said Dr Rodrigue, adding that information was collected both from All-Star Transportation and from the school principals.
In the case of too many students sitting in a seat, Dr Rodrigue said the videos showed it was not happening. She said she thinks “part of the problem” is last year’s buses were frequently half empty and students had more space to themselves.
“You now have buses that are full,” said Dr Rodrigue, adding that the videos show two students to a seat, some empty seats, and, in some cases, full buses. Some student confusion was discovered, she continued, around where the different ages could sit, which resulted in some students sitting too many to a seat when there were other seating options.
The district originally asked for a “two-week window” from the start of the school year, Dr Rodrigue said, to review evidence and try to resolve issues “one by one.” Changes included shifting bus times, communicating the changes with families, and splitting bus routes to shorten ride times.
Some buses are still “just skirting in” minutes after the start of the school day, according to Dr Rodrigue, who added those arrivals are “late enough” and “unacceptable.”
“The concerns that have been brought up are valid,” said Dr Rodrigue.
So far in the school year, Dr Rodrigue said the school educators and staff have been phenomenal.
“To get a shuttle system like this to work the way it does is amazing,” said Dr Rodrigue. Staff, she added, are working overtime to make sure the system is safe for students.
Dr Rodrigue also said traffic congestion usually lessens within the first couple weeks of school, but that has not happened this school year.
One public participation speaker, Lucie Petrini, who said she drives one of the busier bus routes for All-Star Transportation, also said traffic has been an issue this school year. While the routes were rehearsed over the summer, Ms Petrini said the degree of unexpected traffic every morning causes her to be roughly ten minutes late for her elementary bus runs after finishing the first tier of routes.
“At the bus company they are doing everything they can,” Ms Petrini said. She added that a change like the one made this year is expected to come with “bumps in the road,” but she questioned how long is appropriate to give it before saying it is not working.
Between the district and All-Star Transportation, Dr Rodrigue said, “a lot of work has been going in to try to make this work.
“Why would we try to make this work? Because it is good for kids and we wanted to make sure that we really have the time to see if it could work and see if we could perfect it,” she added.
While Dr Rodrigue added the system has not been perfected, she said she thinks many improvements have been made since the start of the school year. She likened the new system to playing the game Whack-A-Mole: one issue is fixed then another bus is late.
“It’s such a tight system to make this work, that is the issue,” said Dr Rodrigue. “The problem now is what do we do about it?”
Dr Rodrigue proposed “an immediate” task force to find solutions to make the system work.
“The bottom line is students have to be to school on time, [and] students have to be safe,” Dr Rodrigue said.
She added later, “We need to fix it so it works for everyone.”
School board members generally shared approval for the idea of a task force and asked a number of questions.
School board Secretary Debbie Leidlein suggested the task force could look at what appears to be unbalanced ridership levels and times at different schools, Andrew Clure offered to be a member of the task force, and school board Vice Chair Michelle Embree Ku suggested the task force include some members of the original committee that looked at changing school start times to have consistent information available.
The task force, Dr Rodrigue said, will need to “work fast,” and she added she would like parents to be part of the effort.
Board of Education Chairman Keith Alexander said the board agrees with Dr Rodrigue’s priority to figure out what can be solved and that waiting is not an option.
“It is not something we can wait to do. We need to do it now,” Dr Rodrigue said.