Time for accountability

Published 10:50 pm Wednesday, January 8, 2014

During the first weeks of the school year, it was hard not to wonder how the Suffolk Public School System’s transportation department had so utterly failed to use the summer to develop and test a plan that would be effective in getting kids to school on time and then home at the end of the day at a reasonable hour.

Officials had known for at least most of the summer break that they would face serious challenges when students returned to school. Fewer bus drivers than the previous year combined with piggy-backed routes resulting from new start times at some of the schools and extremely tight schedules for packed school buses all resulted in utter chaos on the first day of school. And the second. And into the second week. And longer.

In fact, the problems persisted up to — and to hear some parents talk — and beyond the point at which the Suffolk School Board stepped in and adjusted the bell times for one of the city’s high schools. The School Board had arguably set the school transportation catastrophe in motion when it set up the staggered-schedule system as a means of saving money by reducing the number of contract drivers that were needed, so it was appropriate for board members to help craft a solution.

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Still, though, many wondered why the transportation department seemed to have been caught so off guard by the bottlenecks and delays that bus drivers encountered at the launch of the new schedule.

Many of those same people are scratching their heads again this week on news that members of the King’s Fork High School wrestling team were stranded and unable to get to a pre-paid tournament on Saturday, because the school bus they had arranged to transport them to Tallwood High School showed up far too late for them to get to Virginia Beach in time for the competition.

With the competition set to start at 9 a.m., the wrestlers were awaiting pickup at King’s Fork High School at 7 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., their coach began calling officials at the transportation office, but he received no response, as the office was closed for winter break. By 8:30 a.m., with no bus in sight — and no way to get all of the wrestlers to the event within school policies — he sent his wrestlers home.

Surely buses have mechanical problems — and, like most such problems, they likely occur at the worse possible times — but the system’s notification procedures were not followed by the driver, according to a school spokeswoman. To make matters worse, the coach was apparently unable to contact anyone in the transportation department who could help him.

Small field trips like this one should require a minimum amount of planning — but the plans must be adhered to, and there needs to be a degree of oversight in the process. It would seem those basic requirements were not met in this case, and the failure to meet them seems to be without any good excuse.

It’s time for the School Board to hold the system’s transportation department accountable for doing its job.