The agenda was cleared for Monday night’s Kent County Board of Education meeting to leave ample time to discuss the disastrous state of student transportation during the first week of school.
The Board of Education hired a new bus contractor this year in an effort to save costs amid rising budget deficits and shrinking student enrollment. Baltimore-based Reliable Transportation won the contract in a competitive bid process, yielding the district a savings of $400,000 over four years.
There was an added savings as well. The contract was previously held by a local consortium, Kent County Bus Contractors LLC, which bid nearly $1.8 million. That was nearly $200,000 more than the $1.59 million the district paid them the prior year. The difference in bids between Reliable and the Kent County contractors was $1.06 million over four years — money the district needs to put in the classrooms. Still, the vote to change contractors was unpopular among some in the community.
The new bus contract posed a number of concerns. Could Reliable afford the number of buses required? It bought them. Where would they establish a depot due to Kent County zoning issues? Reliable is renting the former Queen Anne’s Bowling Center just south of Chestertown but in Queen Anne’s County. Where would the drivers come from? There are some local drivers, others are not. Some are coming from Baltimore.
While Reliable appeared to have the staff, the buses and a local base of operations ready to go for the first day of school Sept. 5, the number of complaints reported was high and remained so throughout the week. It prompted Board of Education President Trish McGee, associate editor of the
Kent County News, to say Monday night that good reports were the exception to the rule at this point.
Buses were late. Pickups and drop-offs were missed. Drivers got lost. Drivers failed to report for work. There was a 90-minute delay on Friday because drivers were stuck in traffic trying to get to their buses. Some parents did not know what buses their children were supposed to ride or when they would be showing up. There were reports of breakdowns, and even a bus running out of gas.
All in all, based on the information we have heard and was relayed Monday directly to the Board of Education by irate parents, we feel it safe to call Reliable’s first week on the job an absolute disaster.
Bus drivers play a very important role in our community. Every day, we entrust them with the most precious cargo: our children. We do not care if they are from here or not. We care that our children get to school safely and on time, driven by someone who is polite, caring, dedicated and capable. And there were reports of good drivers. Not every bus was late.
The Board of Education made a mistake, but one that was unforeseen. Members signed a contract in good faith. Reliable put up a performance bond to back up the agreement that it would have a fully staffed and capable bus operation for Kent County Public Schools.
It is unfortunate, yet understandable that parents did not get concrete answers on how the district plans to rectify the situation. But the number of times Superintendent Karen Couch spoke about legal counsel is assuring to us. The engagement of lawyers signals to us that a big change may be on the horizon.
Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” said when watching distressing news, his mother would tell him “Always look for the helpers.”
In this case there are some who deserve recognition for their efforts. Through their Facebook group, the Support Our Schools organizers — who advocate for increased school funding — provided an additional way for parents to communicate bus issues. The district’s supervisor of operations Joe Wheeler was driving buses. District staff agreed to climb aboard to help direct drivers. Couch, Wheeler, Paula Yiannakis and others have been calling parents late into the night. Principals, secretaries and others at the schools have been doing whatever they can to help.
We are incredibly disappointed in the poor service parents and students are receiving. A change needs to be forthcoming as soon as possible.
We likewise are disappointed in reports of parents accosting drivers, especially in front of children. For one, this only slows down the routes. Two, it does not make the children feel more comfortable. Even more distressing are racial epithets we hear are being slung at drivers. One of Millington’s own town council members, Wayne Starkey, referred to Reliable’s attorney as “the colored gentleman.” That is not acceptable at all.
Couch has a very big problem on her hands — and she knows it. Parents and children do not deserve this treatment. If Reliable cannot turn this bus around immediately, Couch and the Board of Education need to turn the company out.
Associate Editor Trish McGee, who also is president of the Kent County Board of Education, did not contribute to this editorial.