Fielding questions from angry parents and students, New Haven Public School officials apologized for safety concerns that arose from the recent school bus crisis at the Transportation Forum at the West Rock Family Center on Wednesday.
In an effort to mitigate a staggering budget deficit, the school system slashed the total number of student bus stops earlier this summer from 8,800 to just over 4,000. While the effort saved the district millions of dollars, fewer bus stops forced students to cross busy streets and dangerous neighborhoods on their own. At the meeting, city officials explained why the number of bus stops had been slashed and updated the attendees on the efforts New Haven Public Schools have made to mitigate the ongoing crisis.
“There was a serious error in not getting to the community earlier,” Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin said to a group of about 20 parents. “We’re here to say we’re sorry. We apologize. And I know that doesn’t take away the trauma that you all are feeling. We’re also here to say, let’s fix it.”
According to NHPS Director of Transportation Fred Till, the crisis stemmed from a midsummer effort by administrators to overhaul the bus system. Since the existing network of bus routes had not been reviewed in four years, the system was filled with unused bus stops and redundant routes, Till said.
At the meeting, Till explained that New Haven Public Schools does not oversee the actual routing. Instead, that job is handled by First Student bus company, the district’s main transportation contractor. When the district requested an overhaul of its bus routes, First Student apparently did not have knowledge of street details, like the safety of the surrounding neighborhood and traffic patterns, Till said.
At the meeting, Joseph-Lumpkin and Till both said the district should have begun the rerouting process in the early spring instead of midsummer. According to Joseph-Lumpkin, starting earlier and consulting parents would have alerted the district about parent concerns before rerouting went into effect.
One parent at the meeting said that he noticed children crossing train tracks multiple times a day to reach bus stops, while another parent complained that her daughter — who has a knee issue — must walk several blocks to her stop.
Another parent also criticized the district’s lack of responsiveness on the phone. According to Joseph-Lumpkin, the district has added at least ten new phone lines to free up call congestion, while holding transportation forums to hear from parents in person.
At a Sept. 11 Board of Education meeting, New Haven Public Schools chief operating officer Michael Pinto told assembled community members that the district planned to answer every parent’s complaints by Oct. 1. However, that deadline came and went by Wednesday’s meeting with parent and student concerns unresolved.
Joseph-Lumpkin told the News that she estimates about 80 percent of complaints have been resolved since the district first identified the bus problem at the end of August. Though the district received around 250 complaints per day near the beginning of the school year, that number has fallen to about 15 or 20, Joseph-Lumpkin said. Still, she said, the district is working hard to resolve every last issue.
“We came out to you because we know it’s hard for you all to take time and come down and tell us how mad you are with us,” Joseph-Lumpkin said to parents on Wednesday. “We will fix it. And I know nobody’s happy.”
Joseph-Lumpkin added that holding transportation forums like Wednesday’s is the district’s way of showing “empathy and understanding” to affected families. Next Wednesday, the district will hold a similar meeting for parents to work with NHPS staff to enter their addresses and preferred bus stops into the district’s routing system.
According to the New Haven Public Schools Department of Transportation website, NHPS operates 350 buses, which drive 19,240 miles daily.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 4: A previous version of this article stated that NHPS “drives 19,240 buses daily.” In fact, NHPS buses drive 19,240 miles — not buses — daily.