The New Haven Board of Education convened two days past its scheduled date, but despite an unusually full agenda, the majority of the meeting focused on parents’ concerns with transportation issues in New Haven Public Schools.
Wednesday’s special meeting began with a moment of silence for the victims of 9/11. While the original agenda included items like approving personnel reports, most of the meeting featured arguments surrounding the recent controversy over bus routes. In an attempt to alleviate the city’s current debt crisis, the district cut about half of last year’s bus stops from around 8,800 to just over 4,000. As the school year started and a torrent of complaints began to plague the district, the Board made its position clear: New Haven Public Schools must solve the problem, preferably before the projected date of Oct. 1.
“That’s not soon enough,” Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said of the proposed deadline. “I know you guys are working hard, however, we have parents that are on the verge of losing jobs, written up, because their [children’s] buses aren’t showing up. This is not acceptable.”
According to several flustered parents, some of their children are forced to walk several miles to school in lieu of taking the bus — often crossing dangerous intersections, busy thoroughfares and multiple neighborhoods. In past meetings, other parents have stressed that because their children’s buses are either late or fail to show up, students travel daily through areas ridden with recent violent crimes. And in some cases, other youths do not attend school at all due to the lack of transport.
While students seem most directly affected by the lack of bus routes, parents are also weathering a significant portion of the stress. Job and income loss were frequent topics at Wednesday’s tense meeting. Since several parents now have to drive or walk their children to school, some adults are experiencing repercussions at work due to consistent lateness. Other parents stressed disruption in their personal lives and fear for their children’s safety.
According to NHPS parent Rayshan Coleman, his daughters’ current walk to school requires them to pass street corners where they are frequently catcalled. Speaking to the assembled Board on Wednesday, Coleman recounted how he nearly ended up in jail after he engaged in a physical altercation to defend his daughters.
The district attempted to assuage some of the assembled parents’ concerns, noting that they plan to cover the entire backlog of about 1,500 complaints — accounting for about 8 percent of the NHPS student population — by the first of October. While Jackson-McArthur immediately dismissed the proposed deadline, other Board and community members asked why the rerouting would require so much time. According to NHPS Director of Transportation Fred Till, the initial issue began in July, when a computer outage rendered the bus routing system useless for 30 days. Since bus routes take approximately four to six weeks for the district to develop, the chances that the bus routes would be set by the beginning of the 2019–20 school year would have been slim.
At the meeting, Paul Demaio of First Student bus company — the district’s main transportation contractor — told parents that once a complaint is entered into First Student’s system, it usually takes about two days to process. However, he noted that the sheer volume of manual entries into the system stemming from new parent complaints buried the original 1,500. Demaio said that First Student has added five personnel to help process the complaints.
Despite his assurances, Demaio came under fire from parents concerned about overcrowding on buses and the ability of First Student’s systems to create efficient travel times. While Demaio noted that First Student owns a fleet of 400 buses of different sizes, he admitted that on some occasions, a bus will fill up overcapacity if a large amount of students live on the same route. One parent stressed the importance of working security cameras on buses — according to Demaio, no bus to his knowledge has a faulty camera.
Bus travel times were also featured in the onslaught of parent complaints to Demaio. According to one parent who spoke at the meeting, even though their child’s school dismisses at 4 p.m., their child often does not get home until 5:30 or 6 p.m. According to Till, the preferred bus travel time limit for a single student is 30 minutes.
Parents also extended their complaints beyond the Board and First Student, listing issues like a lack of communication. According to NHPS parent Sadie Marshall, First Student only has about two people overseeing the phones, and when she visited the company’s office to explain her concerns over her child’s consistently late bus, Demaio was “rude” to her. She added that when she asked about the sparse staff available to answer calls, Demaio responded by saying Marshall should apply to work for him.
“First Student is dedicated to safety in the district,” Demaio told the News. He added that his company is working with the district to solve the crisis.
According to First Student’s website, the company “is committed to easing your daily transportation challenges and ensuring your students have the best possible ride to and from school.”
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org .