Bus prob­lems

Kent County News - - OPINION -

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.

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