Parents demand answers to bus debacle

Published 11:04 pm Friday, September 13, 2013

As a teacher and parent, Holly Pentecost is experiencing the pitfalls of Suffolk Public Schools’ new bus schedules two-fold.

When the clock strikes 3:30 p.m., her job at Florence Bowser Elementary School morphs from educator to babysitter.

Pentecost said she wears her new hat for the next 45 minutes to an hour, waiting for buses to start entering the loop.
“I know I’d like to get out of work on time,” she said. “Teaching is more than just a job, but I still have to get home to my children.”


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The mayhem — by all reports — began with the new school year on Sept. 3, when schedules transitioned from a single schedule for middle and high schools, and another for elementary schools, to separate schedules for middle and high schools and elementary “A” and “B” schools.

The School Board has changed hours at Nansemond River High School, which is expected to begin starting and letting out 15 minutes earlier beginning Wednesday.

Officials estimate the changes will save $350,000 through increased efficiencies, delay $500,000-worth of new buses, plus relieve traffic snarls and driver absences.

But in the eyes of many parents and teachers, unintended consequences have so far eclipsed the benefits.

Facebook, the district’s Transportation Department phones and an online form established to field them have been lit up with complaints, including students not getting to school in time for classes, arriving home two hours late, and overcrowded buses.

As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the form at had received 289 submissions, district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said in an email.

“Most (are) focused on late buses, and requests for bus stop changes,” she said, adding there were “some concerns” about overcrowding, a quantity of repeat submissions from the same family, and “some general dissatisfaction without a specific request mentioned.” In response, the district’s outreach to parents has included late bus calls on School Messenger, its automated telephone service.

Calls started Sept. 4 — the day after problems started — with a total of 21 batches issued up until Thursday, including 16 for morning buses and five for afternoon buses, Bradshaw said.

But she acknowledged there have been more late buses than robocalls. Officials weigh up whether to assign a dispatcher to instigate a messenger call “when that dispatcher could be working to find a substitute driver or another resolution to prevent further delays,” she said.

Officials also have to decide whether a bus is actually late, according to Bradshaw. “How many minutes does a bus have to be behind schedule to warrant an SM call(?)” she posed.

Superintendent Deran Whitney reported “about 1,000” route changes in response to concerns raised, assuring Thursday’s School Board meeting the high number is not inflated.

He said the district had 16 fewer drivers than the 145 officials would like, compounding the issue when many drivers are acclimating to unfamiliar routes.

The bottom line is that “some of the routes are taking longer than anticipated,” Whitney said.

Adjustments will continue, he said. In response to claims the Transportation Department is ignoring the telephone, he added, “I want to assure you the phone is not taken off the hook.”

But assurances don’t convince Pentecost. “They keep telling us it’s going to get better — it’s not,” she said, adding enough time to get it right has already elapsed.

Matthew Palumbo, with one child at Nansemond River High and two at John Yeates Middle, reported “severe overcrowding” to the point that students were forced to sit on the floor of the bus, and one sat on the steps in the doorway.

“What needs to be done in the interim is to assign more buses … to ensure the students are delivered to school safely and on time,” Palumbo wrote in an email.

“The safety of the children is not worth the expected cost savings.”

For Aaron Phillips, it’s unnerving not to know when his children will arrive home or exactly where they are when the hour hand has passed 5 p.m.

“I don’t know when my kids are leaving or how long they are actually on the bus,” he said.