Late school buses plague kids, parents

October 21, 2011
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School buses running as late as an hour are plaguing local students, parents and public schools, with no ultimate cause nailed down seven weeks into the year.

“It seems as if it’s just a fundamental breakdown of something,” said Jamaica Plain parent Marc Lipsitch, a parent of two children at the Hernandez School, whose bus was still running 30 minutes late last week.

The new Bridge Boston Charter School in JP keeps staff late to watch over kindergartners stuck by late buses, according to Executive Director Jug Chokshi.

“It’s difficult. They’re 4 and 5 years old,” said Chokshi. “When the bus is late, parents get very concerned.”

The delays mean kids can miss their first class or even school-provided breakfast, said Claudio Martinez, a JP resident and Boston School Committee member.

“All these minutes add up,” said Kathy Burger, a Dorchester resident who is in a parents group organized under the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) to work with BPS on the issue. She added that special-needs kids are sometimes not getting their mandated door-to-door bus service.

“It’s unacceptable that any of our buses would be late,” said Boston Public Schools (BPS) spokesperson Matt Wilder. He said bus service has improved, but that there are “still far too many” late buses.

“I don’t think any one thing is to blame,” Wilder said. “I think there are several contributing factors.”

They include a software-based bus routing system installed last year; more students attending schools outside their neighborhoods; and complexities of after-school activities, according to BPS. Parents point to overall cuts in buses as well.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s a purely transportation issue,” said Martinez, pointing to more students, including English Language Learners, being required to travel to out-of-zone schools.

Everyone involved said BPS has been responsive, but that the problems linger.

“We’re frustrated because we’re not getting any clear answer about what the root cause is,” said Burger.

BPS says that its on-time bus service has improved from 68.8 percent in late September to 77.8 percent early this month. But parents disagree with those numbers, and BPS is actually using parent-provided data because it currently has no complaint tracking system, Burger said. Wilder confirmed that BPS is still working on a tracking system.

Adding more buses to the system sounds like a quick fix, but that is off the table, according to Burger. City officials for years have advocating reductions in the number of school bus routes to cut costs.

“They went to this [current] system to add efficiency to save money. And if you add buses, you spend money,” Burger said.

“We’re bringing [BPS] up to the 21st century, not without glitches,” said Martinez, praising the move to computerize the bus-routing. “Having said that, there’s no excuse” for late buses, he added.

The School Committee has pressed BPS for solutions at recent meetings and will keep up the pressure, Martinez said.

BPS operates a bus transportation hotline at 617-635-9520 and accepts complaints at schoolbus@bostonpublicschools.org.