Schools study transportation

Published 9:30 pm Thursday, July 9, 2015

A transportation consultant has given Suffolk School Board members food for thought ahead of next month’s annual retreat, where Superintendent Deran Whitney says they will discuss the implementation of numerous recommendations to make the buses run on time.

During a work session Thursday, representatives of TransPro Consulting reported on the results of a probe into the school district’s troubled transportation department, which occurred between April and July at the direction of the board.

The three consultants found numerous deficiencies that are combining to make the buses late. The findings are categorized into three areas: people, process and tools.

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As with most districts, the consultants conclude in their report, transportation is perceived as an afterthought rather than a priority, which has lead to some “innovative, creative, and sometimes ad hoc solutions to complex systemic problems facing operations and maintenance, which could lead to more serious challenges.”

The district experiences high rates of late buses or no-shows, disabled buses and staff leaving voluntarily, according to the findings.

Cited were inadequate succession and leadership planning, below-market pay, too few drivers and insufficient training.

The district’s reliance on the city for parts procurement when breakdowns occur was a major issue highlighted, leaving buses idle for longer than they need to be. “If you have a shortage of buses, then it creates an operational scramble,” said Randy Weaver, TransPro’s chief operating officer.

It was suggested the district could, for instance, set up an open purchase order for parts to draw down as required, rather than have the city start the process each time a part is required.

A lot of time was spent at the work session discussing the staggered bus schedule first introduced almost two years ago. It currently consists of four tiers, with separate bells for high and middle schools and elementary schools split between two bells.

The schedule is causing inefficiency, according to the consultants, with only one general education bus during the past school year able to make all four runs. Just over half of “gen-ed” buses were making three runs, 42 percent were making two runs, and 5 percent — or six buses — were only able to handle a single run.

According to the findings, the schedule also meant that on average, buses were arriving at elementary schools on the third tier six minutes late in the morning, and 32 minutes late for elementary schools on the fourth tier.

The longest run time — for Pioneer Elementary School in the city’s rural southwest — was 65 minutes, and the shortest — for Forest Glen Middle School — was 15 minutes.

The findings and recommendations were numerous. Short-term recommendations, which Whitney said the district would be able to “jump on … right now,” include taking care to hire the right coordinator of transportation, a position open again after the person who replaced Lonnie Reavis, who left less than six months ago, also left.

Another short-term recommendation was taking care to select the right GPS system, for which the district has already begun procurement. It is hoped the right system will provide managers with the data to make better decisions — another finding is that managers are making instinctive, rather than data-driven, decisions.

“It really gives us direction as to what some of our next steps might be,” Whitney said of the consultant’s work.