An­gry par­ents voice is­sues with school buses

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By DANIEL DIVILIO ddivilio@thekent­coun­tynews.com

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.”

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

Par­ent Wayne Starkey shouts ques­tions from the au­di­ence at Mon­day night’s Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion meet­ing on stu­dent trans­porta­tion is­sues.

PHOTO BY SHERRY WIL­LIAMS

Due to con­tin­ued is­sues with school buses, Sherry Wil­liams posted this sign di­rect­ing a bus to stop at her house.

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

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