Angry parents voice issues with school buses
ROCK HALL — “You’re failing us,” mother Sam Coleman told Kent County Board of Education members and Superintendent Karen Couch Monday night regarding the sheer volume of complaints about student transportation during the first week of school.
Buses were reportedly late, very late, missed students and passed stops without stopping. There are additional reports of unsafe driving, buses breaking down, one even running out of gas with children on board, and poor driver behavior.
Baltimore-based Reliable Transportation is the district’s new bus contractor. The company established a depot at the former Queen Anne’s Bowling Center, just south of Chestertown in Queen Anne’s County. The company had hired a local manager, longtime Kent County resident Robert Van-Dyke; he resigned on Monday.
The Kent County Board of Education cleared the agenda for its regular monthly meeting Monday night to open the floor for feedback on the issues plaguing Reliable’s service, after first meeting in closed session for legal advice.
What was meant to be a two-hour public meeting lasted more than four hours, as parents and community members asked questions, listed issues and shouted at Board of Education members, Couch and Reliable’s chief operating officer, Timothy Dixon.
“I am appalled at, really, what the delivery of our transportation services has been for the last week,” Trish McGee, Board of Education president and associate editor of the Kent County
News, told the audience late in the meeting. “I don’t find anything acceptable for what has happened. I think every single parent’s complaint is valid. ... If you don’t think we’re listening, that’s not true. We are listening.”
Audience member Carl Hardin asked Dixon if Reliable would just quit.
“I think that’s an unfair and offensive question and I’m not going to dignify that,” Dixon said.
Dixon started the meeting outside the packed former cafeteria space the board meets in at the central office in Rock Hall. It was not until board members said Reliable had been invited to the meeting but they did not see a company representative that Dixon entered the room. He then
took a seat at a table next to the podium.
Couch opened the meeting discussing the district’s financial problems, including a $2 million shortfall initially expected in this year’s budget. She said the district cut $1 million in expenses by closing two schools and received an additional $200,000 in state funding.
Faced with additional programming cuts such as athletics, the Board of Education agreed to put out to bid the student transportation contract that was held by a local consortium of contractors for about 20 years. Two bids were received: Reliable and the former contract holders, Kent County Bus Contractors LLC.
Reliable was the low bidder, cutting $400,000 from the student transportation budget over four years. The Board of Education awarded the contract to Reliable.
“Without any hope of seeing increased funding, we had few options,” Couch said.
Jerry Bramble, a former bus contractor with the local consortium, spoke about how some members in the group acted against advice, including legal counsel, in submitting a bid that was about $200,000 more than the $1.59 million the district spent on buses the previous year under the prior contract.
“Our lawyer repeatedly told us: If you bid $1.8 million, put for sale signs on your buses, you’re not going to get it,” Bramble said.
When someone asked why the Board of Education did not then choose to negotiate or extend a counteroffer, Couch said that is not allowed in a competitive bid process. She said when a body collects bids, it cannot enter negotiations with other parties.
“You get what you pay for,” a woman shouted from the audience.
Board members and Couch had few answers for the standing room-only audience as to how the bus issues would be resolved.
Couch said all options were being explored, but on advice of legal counsel, she could not discuss what they included. She said it could be a couple of weeks if not sooner that a resolution is effected.
“Our intent is to bring this to a quick conclusion so we can get back to the real work of getting your kids to school and allowing them to have the transportation that you deserve and that they deserve,” Couch told the audience.
Parents’ complaints at the meeting were many.
Some questioned why drivers were getting lost or did not know their routes.
“I work with 25 Mexicans who can’t speak English, but every day I can get them to a job with a map. These bus drivers are showing up with names and street addresses. They got no map. They don’t know where they’re going,” Charles Spray told board members.
Andy Krastel questioned when Reliable was given route maps and how much time drivers spent preparing.
“Why aren’t your guys practicing? They should have it down,” Krastel asked Dixon.
Dixon said Reliable received route maps in early August. He said the maps were updated several times in advance of the first day of school, Sept. 5.
Rebecca Heriz-Smith is a parent and an organizer of the grassroots campaign Support Our Schools advocating for increased funding for the district. She asked if, after the morning run had so many issues on the first day of school, drivers were required to practice before the afternoon pickup.
Dixon said there were dry runs taken. He said drivers were back out on the roads in advance of the afternoon run, in some cases with more knowledgable drivers onboard to help guide them.
A number of parents spoke about stops being missed, with students left waiting for buses. They also reported cases of children being dropped off a mile or more from home.
“My daughter has yet to get the bus to school. We have been up at the bus stop for every morning last week and a bus never comes,” Nichol Gray said.
Chrissy Strickland said a bus was going to drop a child off a mile from home. Strickland said her child suggested the little girl get off at Strickland’s house and wait for a ride home.
“I would like the bus drivers held accountable,” Strickland said. “Every parent, by Friday, needs to be contacted by your bus drivers.”
Spray said there were children dropped off in his neighborhood 2 miles from their houses.
Coleman, the mother who told the board members they are failing the families they represent, said her child’s bus stop was set half of a mile from home, while a sexual predator lives within 3 miles of her house. She questioned the safety of her child with such a walk home from the bus stop.
“What happens when a bus crashes? What happens when a child doesn’t get home and isn’t at the school? I’m mad. They’re mad. This is uncalled for,” Coleman told board members.
Parents said the issues with late and missing buses have cost them time off from work. Some said they feared their jobs may be in jeopardy because of that.
Carrie Nicholson said she anticipated bus issues and made backup plans for the start of the school year. She has missed too much time from work at this point and come Wednesday would need to find another way of getting her four children to school.
“I cannot afford to miss another day from work, not one more day because I cannot get my child to school,” Dianelle Laney said.
Michael Sarratt said his boss is understanding, but his wife is self-employed. He said that when she does not work, she does not get paid and they have to make the rent.
“No matter what, all the families involved here are losing out, but I don’t see that a single one of you sitting up there is losing out on anything,” Sarratt told board members.
It also was about how much time students were missing from school.
“What’s happening in that hour span that they’re not at school and they’re miss- ing that valuable time in the morning to get their things together, to go to their home room?” Nicholson asked. “So what is going to happen with that education that our children are losing?”
Kent County High School freshman Misty Mett was the only student to speak. She was at the podium at about 10:30 p.m.
“I can’t really focus on my school work if I’m stressing about my siblings coming off of a bus two hours late. It hurts my heart to see my kindergarten sister come off of the bus, my third-grade sister come off of the bus crying because they thought they weren’t going to get home. It hurts,” Mett said.
Mett said she has had three different afternoon bus drivers.
There also were concerns about student attendance and whether parents may find themselves in truancy court because their children were getting marked excessively absent over the buses’ failings.
Tracey Williams, Kent County Public Schools’ new supervisor of student services and secondary education, said absentees and tardies as a result of bus issues would not count against students or parents.
Questions were raised about bus safety, whether they were properly certified by the state and were properly equipped.
Couch previously said some buses did not have the cross arms and strobe lights required by the district, but not the state. She said the equipment recently arrived, paid for by a grant the district received, with Reliable to cover the cost of the labor.
McGee said she confirmed with the Motor Vehicle Administration that the buses were inspected by Chester River Diesel at Kent County High School in Worton Aug.
29 under supervision of a state enforcement officer. She said they were certified by the state.
Shannon Black asked about the number of reports of buses breaking down after leaving Reliable’s depot. She said her husband is a commercial driver and completes a safety checklist before heading out on the job.
Dixon said the issue comes from some drivers being new to the job, while others are unfamiliar with the model of buses they are operating.
Wayne Starkey said he recorded videos of buses failing to activate their red and yellow lights.
Black said her child was on a bus that ran out of gas. She said the bus was stranded less than a quarter of a mile from her house for an hour, with no radio to call for help.
Other parents also said buses lacked CB radios, or failed to turn them on.
Dixon said he was not aware of buses without radios. Parents gave him the numbers of specific buses they said that had mounting brackets for radios, but no radio in sight.
Joe Wheeler, KCPS’ new supervisor of operations, said the district provided four portable radios to buses that lacked the communications equipment.
Communication in general was another point of concern for parents, who said at times they did not know if their children were on buses.
Jackie Franklin said she waited for her daughter at the bus stop after the first day of school, but she did not show up. Franklin said she never received a call.
She said the issue continued for three days. One afternoon when she finally received a call from Reliable telling her the company was working on getting her child home, Franklin said her daughter was already at her house.
Nicholson said students do not know what their bus numbers are because there is no consistency.
“They change buses every day. They change the bus numbers,” Cleotrina Tinch said.
Cindy Beemiller said while her children may be only 20 or 30 minutes late, a situation she acknowledged is better than what other parents are reporting, she is likewise concerned.
“I have two kindergartners. I don’t know where the bus is,” she said. “Send me a text message.”
Sarratt said his oldest son, who attends the high school, was able to text him about his bus being behind schedule, while he was left wondering where his elementary-age child was when the bus ran more than an hour late.
“I didn’t feel like coming up here and telling you my story was going to change anything. Quite frankly, it’s to make me feel better,” he told the board members.
Couch said she and other district staff members tried to keep parents informed. She said they spent long nights at the office following up with phone calls to parents.
Parents were notified Friday that there would be a 90-minute delay, but said no reason was given.
Couch said after the meeting that the delay was caused by Reliable drivers being stuck in traffic and late for work.
The behavior of some drivers also was a cause for concern among parents.
Melissa Porter relayed stories of drivers using profanity when speaking to children.
Parents spoke about seeing drivers blow through intersections or speed in developments. Drivers were re- portedly seen parked on the side of the road and smoking, their buses empty.
“No matter what you do, putting old bus drivers in, whatever, the damage has been done. You know, you’ve got elementary school kids, it takes one incident for them to be traumatized, to not want to get back on the bus,” Porter said.
Not all drivers exhibited such behavior.
Beemiller said she liked her children’s bus driver.
Another parent said the morning driver on their route was good, but they had issues with the afternoon driver.
Couch raised concerns about some parents who reportedly accosted drivers.
McGee has previously said she heard reports of racial epithets being used in some cases against drivers.
“We are documenting these events and if they need to be reported to the proper authorities, that will be done as well,” Couch said.
Two parents spoke about the additional medical needs of their children.
One father asked if drivers would know what to do if his two children suffered diabetic emergencies. A mother said a seatbelt is required for her son with special needs, but his bus is not equipped with one.
“My kids need health care and if you ignore it, they die,” the father said to Dixon. “No excuses. I don’t even want to listen to you talk any more.”
SOS organizers HerizSmith and Francoise Sullivan ran through a list of 18 questions for board members, Couch and Reliable. The list was generated by the 900plus members of a Facebook group they set up to help disseminate information about the district.
They asked about topics ranging from the cross arms and strobe lights to whether or not the Board of Education believes Reliable to be in breach of its contract.
“The response that I can give at this time is that we are exploring all options,” Couch said regarding the contract. “It’s not an answer that I can discuss publicly at this point and I refuse to do that because I am not going to jeopardize any position we might be taking in the future.”
Sullivan said some parents feel they should be compensated for loss of work or additional childcare and whether the district would entertain such a proposition. Couch said no. Hearing that the contract was bid out in an effort to save money, a number of audience members questioned why Couch received a raise this year. They also questioned the size of the salary paid to Couch, who holds a doctorate.
For the last three years, Couch’s annual salary was $152,440, having received a 3 percent raise after her first year on the job. When her contract was renewed this summer, she received a one-time 2 percent raise — $3,048 — locking her salary at $155,488 annually for the next four years.
“Why are we paying you $150-some thousand when we can’t even afford our buses?” Franklin asked Couch.
Some parents appeared to be under the impression that the Board of Education members received high salaries.
McGee said they were practically volunteers. She receives $2,500 a year as president; the other board members each receive $2,000 annually.
Some attendees offered solutions to the transportation issues.
Bramble suggested bringing back the district’s former transportation supervisor, who resigned at the end of the previous school year. He said Reliable should be fired immediately, a statement that received wide applause from the crowd, and local contractors be rehired individually, without the former consortium model.
“You know, I think your arrogance has got you into this position,” Bramble told board members and Couch. “I just pray to God there isn’t a crisis with a kid in this county due to this.”
Michael Heffron said he managed student transportation for three school districts in the past. He questioned where the local drivers were.
Many in the audience agreed with the call for local drivers to return. They voiced concerns about drivers traveling from Baltimore and said many of them did not understand the Eastern Shore and Kent County.
Dixon said Reliable offered positions to many local drivers. He said some failed to respond and others took meetings with Reliable without signing on or notifying the company of their decision. He said some local drivers were formally hired and did not report for work.
“But we continue to make the attempt to hire local drivers, but we have had to supplement those drivers with people from Baltimore,” Dixon said.
“What did you expect?” someone shouted from the audience.
“Go back to Baltimore,” was another statement shouted by a member of the crowd as Dixon spoke.
Laney stood up for Wheeler, who Bramble called “inexperienced.” Laney asked Wheeler how many years he worked for the district. Wheeler said 20 years. “I would never jump on him (Wheeler). You know why I would never jump on him? Because he got on the bus with his CDL license and drove children home,” Laney said.
Heffron said vitriol, rudeness and harassing people is not going to help the problem. He suggested people try to work with the Board of Education and Reliable.
“Try to take a more positive route,” Heffron said.
The crowd drowned him out, as they did others throughout the night. Board member Wendy Costa was shouted down twice. Board member Jeff Reed opted to cut his closing statement short.
At times, the shouting from some in the crowd was so loud, Dixon and Couch were unable to answer a question.
McGee tried to maintain order, at one point admonishing one man by name.
“Do you want to hear the answers or do you just want to make a lot of noise?” she asked the audience.
Other solutions offered included Couch and the board members resigning. They were not the only ones whose ouster was recommended.
Some pointed fingers at the Kent County Commissioners as well. Of the three commissioners, only Ron Fithian was in the audience.
“We need to go to the county and tell them give the school more money. We need to go to the state and tell them give the school more. And all of you up there (the Board of Education) need to step down immediately, because I’m telling you this thing is out of hand,” Hardin said.
SOS organizer Jodi Bortz said the funding issues lay at the feet of the commissioners because much of the district’s budget comes from the county coffers.
“We need to tell the people who control the tax money to give the money to the schools because they won’t,” Bortz told the crowd.
Some in the audience were frustrated not just due to the lack of a solution coming from the Board of Education, but also because they were not hearing an apology.
McGee — who apologized for the situation several times throughout the night — said the purpose of the meeting was for the board to hear concerns from the community.
Board Vice President Bryan Williams said the issues raised during the meeting were not falling on deaf ears.
“You deserve better for the children of Kent County,” he told the crowd. “I’m sorry it happened this way. I’m sorry everybody’s upset. And we are going to rectify this problem and do it as fast as possible. I promise.”
McGee said when board members voted to approve the new bus contract, she never would have imagined the situation would turn out the way it has.
“When I voted for it, I thought I was doing the right thing,” she said. “I’m taking ownership for myself, for a decision that I made, and I don’t like what I got.”
McGee said good reports on buses are the exception to the rule. She questioned why, when the district is so small, they cannot make things work and why students who are standing in their driveways are being missed by buses.
“I am also deeply sorry. You do deserve better,” Couch told the audience at the end of the night. “Your children are the priority. You deserve to have your children at school in a timely, efficient and a safe manner. You deserve that. I believe that. I wouldn’t have been up every morning at 4 a.m. worrying and wondering about it myself. I’ve been to work, I’ve been worrying about it. I’ve been here late every night. I’ve done it because I care about your kids.”
From left, Kent County Board of Education member Joe Goetz, Vice President Bryan Williams and President Trish McGee prepare to open a standing room-only meeting Monday night over issues with student transportation.
Dianelle M. Laney, right, voices her concerns to the Kent County Board of Education Monday night over the troubling first week of school for the district’s bus contractor, Reliable Transportation.
Sam Coleman tells the Kent County Board of Education Monday night that it is failing her and other parents due to continued safety issues with new bus contractor Reliable Transportation.
Parent Wayne Starkey shouts questions from the audience at Monday night’s Kent County Board of Education meeting on student transportation issues.
Due to continued issues with school buses, Sherry Williams posted this sign directing a bus to stop at her house.
Standing in the audience, Becky Sullivan questions the Kent Board of Education at a meeting Monday night about issues with the district’s new school bus contractor, Reliable Transportation.