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Hub school bus drivers gave warning of route troubles

The Boston School Bus Drivers Union said it told First Student officials last year that routes were riddled with problems. The Boston School Bus Drivers Union said it told First Student officials last year that routes were riddled with problems. (The Boston Globe/File 2010)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / January 30, 2012
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Three weeks before classes began this school year, bus drivers warned their bosses that Boston’s schools were destined to repeat “massive, systemwide chaos’’ if they proceeded with error-ridden routes that would not allow enough time to transport students.

The routes were used anyway. And now, the school system finds itself wrestling with persistent bus tardiness, as 1 out of every 10 students still arrives after the first bell rings. City and school officials have struggled to get students to class on time since the school year started, when up to 37 percent of buses arrived as much as an hour late.

“It wasn’t like we had mystical powers to forecast the future,’’ said Stevan Kirschbaum, spokesman for the Boston School Bus Drivers Union. “You had routes that had zero minutes in between stops, and routes that were way overcrowded.’’

The August warning from bus drivers came in the form of a grievance, filed by the drivers’ union, against First Student Inc., the private provider of school bus services. The drivers demanded that the company “correct all route problems . . . immediately’’ and add 15 minutes to each route “as a cushion against massive lateness until total correction is made.’’

The routes had too many stops, did not allow enough time between stops, and provided too little time to complete bus yard duties, according to the Aug. 24 grievance obtained by the Globe. “The routes . . . were systematically flawed, containing massive errors in both flat rates and safe on-time routing - insufficient times to safely and timely complete the work,’’ the grievance stated.

First Student spokesman Timothy Stokes said the company briefed the School Department about the union’s complaint, “as is required by our contract to inform them of all grievances.’’ He declined to comment further, “as this is a legal issue.’’

The union had filed a similar warning at the start of the 2010-11 academic year, when the School Department first introduced a computerized routing and fleet management system. At the beginning of last year, much as this year, buses arrived chronically late and drivers said the computerized system was at the heart of the tardiness problem.

School system spokesman Matthew Wilder noted that the complaint was filed before drivers test-drove the routes and that after doing dry runs, only five problems were reported.

“The numbers speak for themselves,’’ Wilder said. “Anyone who says this served as a warning of problems to come would be short-sighted. Anytime a driver alerts First Student or us to the fact that their route isn’t possible, we’re willing to tweak that and we certainly did. We haven’t shied away from responsibility, but there were other complicating factors.’’

School bus drivers are private employees paid hourly by First Student, the company the School Department uses to ferry students to and from school. Drivers are paid, in part, on the length of the routes, and official complaints about route problems are filed directly with the company, not the school system.

Stokes said in a statement from the company’s Cincinnati headquarters that the grievance is going through the “dispute resolution procedure whereby all employee grievances are discussed with management, and if not resolved, will be heard and resolved by a neutral arbitrator selected by the parties.’’

The grievance was discussed during contract negotiations between First Student and the drivers.

The installation of new computer software last year was supposed to help buses run more efficiently. But the system tends to generate routes that are poorly timed because it fails to account for heavy city traffic, the drivers say.

The School Department consolidated more than 1,500 routes but shortened the time to create, test, and modify bus routes.

“We’re not antitechnology; we’re not Luddites,’’ said union spokesman Kirschbaum, a bus driver since the 1970s. “But the routes need to be quality controlled by a pair of human eyes that know the realities of the road. Some of these cost-cutting measures don’t lend themselves to an industry that depends on getting kids to school in a timely manner.’’

Tardy buses are a reality in congested urban districts such as Boston, where 32,684 students are assigned to ride more than 600 school buses. Traffic snarls. Buses break down. Students run late, and buses wait.

But buses, transportation authorities say, should be on time unless the lateness is attributable to circumstances beyond the drivers’ or contractors’ control.

Since November, authorities have addressed the work culture at bus yards, including a failure of management to discipline late drivers, and fixed glitches in the fleet management system, which records when a bus leaves the yard and the time it takes to run a route.

The school system gained a degree of on-time consistency through staffing changes, route adjustments, and close monitoring of First Student, with school officials arriving at the four bus yards before dawn to track when drivers arrived and buses left. Each late bus costs the company money, and the school system fined First Student about $800,000 in December for its late runs during the first half of the academic year.

The company has a 10-year contract through 2011 that was worth $464 million.

But the improvements can also be attributed to several route clinics in which drivers, School Department staff, and First Student administrators worked together to identify and solve problems. Alterations, Kirschbaum said, were made route by route the old-fashioned way: by hand.

“We actually rolled up our sleeves,’’ Kirschbaum said, “and did the work.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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