NEW YORK—Buses arriving hours late and other issues provoked criticism and sharp inquiries by elected officials and parents Wednesday.
The issues come from a complex system of interwoven school bus routes serving more than 160,000 students and more than 3,500 schools through approximately 16,800 bus runs every day. The system, run by the Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT) of the city’s Department of Education, is the largest transportation operation in North America, and globally second only to London’s bus system.
The system is further complicated by different programs for special education students and other students, different requirements for different sets of grades, and the way the education system is set up in New York City—students can apply and go to schools across the city, even if it’s far away from their homes.
In one case, a special education pre-kindergarten student arrived at home more than two hours after he left school. The child’s father had reached the bus attendant on the phone, but she told him she didn’t know where the bus was or when his son would be arriving.
Some parents and most elected officials describe this kind of experience as emblematic, not an anomaly.
“The overall concern is that there are systematic problems with contract school bus service that [the] Department of Education leaves unaddressed year after year,” said Councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, at the hearing.
Alleged problems include lack of oversight and lack of timely responses to complaints from parents.
A sampling of delays can be found on a live webpage hosted by the OPT, where companies that are given contracts to run bus routes report problems. On Oct. 9, more than 150 delays included flat tires, heavy traffic, and mechanical problems. A look at a dozen delays on Oct. 10 showed that delays typically ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.
Officials said Wednesday that transporting students this year has been “relatively successful,” partly based on receiving a similar number of calls to its hotline as previous years.
And when problems arise, swift and decisive action is taken, said DOE official Kathleen Grimm, citing several examples. In one case, after the OPT rebid contracts for pre-K busing, problems arose with a contractor in charge of 13 of 43 areas.
“Students were subjected to long rides and some students were not picked up at all,” Grimm said. “These incidents are unacceptable and we apologize to the students and parents who experienced these problems.”
The company was replaced. Overall, the OPT adjusts the routes daily based on similar reports of difficulties, and other input such as students changing schools.
Grimm said the office has undertaken multiple changes aimed at improving service, such as dividing staff more into a borough-based response system, and giving more training to internal staff, bus drivers, and attendants.
Guidelines from the OPT call for students to spend no more than an hour and fifteen minutes on buses each way.
There are differences in transportation for different students: grades 7 through 12 don’t get bused to school, except for a small number of seventh- and eighth-graders. Instead, most of these students are eligible for free or reduced MetroCards.
If the school has yellow bus service, students in grades three through six are eligible for busing if they reside 1 mile or more from school, and kindergarten through second-graders are eligible if they reside more than half a mile from school. Some of these students are also among the 542,000 students who receive MetroCards.
Yet the largest number of problems seems to come from the special education sector. The Department of Education is mandated by state law to provide transportation for these students, including pre-K.
Jennifer Bailey, a parent of an autistic first-grader named Ronan, expressed frustration at the hearing. A typical car ride from their residence in Forest Hills, Queens, to Kew Gardens, Queens, would take 10 to 15 minutes, but the bus took more than an hour and a half during Ronan’s first week of school.
“I was told they were just working out the route,” she said. But when she reached out to the Office of Pupil Transportation, staff told her Ronan would have to remain on the bus until the office could gather more complaints. Bailey and Ronan endured a lot of stress because of the ordeal, which ended Sept. 15 (a week after he started school), she added later.
Parents at the hearing said they aren’t sure who to blame.Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents approximately 9,000 bus drivers, attendants, and mechanics, said that the union’s members have the same goal as the parents—getting children to school and back safely and on time. He said many drivers give out their cell phone numbers to parents so they can communicate easier.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s office asserted in a report last year that school transportation is failing students and taxpayers. One recommendation made in the report was to boost accountability in the system, since poorly performing bus operators didn’t seem to be properly penalized, and addressing the disproportionate impact of poor bus service on students with disabilities.
De Blasio told The Epoch Times at an unrelated event Wednesday that “we have not seen any progress” since last year’s report, and that the Department of Education didn’t seem willing to serve parents or help them better understand issues related to school transportation.
“We think there’s some real changes needed to be made, but the DOE has not been willing to listen or act yet,” he said. “So we’re just going to intensify the pressure.”
With reporting from Aric Chen
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