slides: Prov School Bus Company Fined Millions Nationally

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

 

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With the new school year nearly a month underway, busing issues in the City of Providence have plagued both the city's school department and busing vendor, First Student, who GoLocal has uncovered has amassed, at a minimum, over $1 million in fines issued in recent years across the country in districts which it serves.

The financial repercussions, which have been reported by a range of news outlets, have been a result of buses being late, as well as hits for environmental transgressions.  In addition, even more issues have come to light, including other districts with problems similar to Providence, a First Student driver charged with DWI, and other sites tracking First Student slip-ups in the news. 

See First Student Fines - and News - in Slideshow BELOW

School bus issues in Providence in recent weeks have ranged from a bus that got lost with students on it (who eventually got off ), to the question of monitors not being on school buses. 

At public forums, however, one common theme that kept recurring was that buses were arriving -- and coming home from -- schools late, and parents were becoming increasingly upset at the length of time students were spending on buses, and not in schools.

Parent advocate Kira Weidner Greene, who has helped spearhead the effort of parents voicing their concerns, told GoLocal, "The city cut approximately $2 million in funding to transportation in the same school year they claimed they had unexpected large increases in student population. How does that make sense? Also, let's not forget that neighborhood schools were closed all over the city. Combine closed schools, student population increase and a transportation budget cut - how could anyone in charge of this not realize it would in the end result in poor and erratic bus service?" 

Parents Pointing Multiple Fingers -- and Questions at First Student

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Questions have been raised regarding a consultant report from last January which showed that financial efficiencies could be gained be reconfiguring bus routes, as well as the nature of the contract with First Student, who according to at least one City Councilman was geared specifically towards the vendor.  

And a number of parents have given accounts of problems with First Student this year, from not being able to reach the bus yard by phone to get answers when buses are late, to being told erroneous information, or simply not being happy with the way they were being treated.

Said Greene, "First Student is a contracted company hired by Providence School Department and the City and they are ultimately accountable here. It seems to be a perfect storm of budget cuts, a bus company lacking basic protocols and service, a school department that is overwhelmed and mismanaged and city budget cuts."

She continued, "The bus drivers are being given an almost impossible task of getting to stops on time and delivering students on time with longer routes as well as doubled-up routes. Some drivers seem to wait in the morning until the correct time to leave the stop - parents notice this and appreciate those drivers. But some drivers leave early -- perhaps they are under pressure to deliver the kids on-time and prioritize that."

Henry Barnard parent Michele Meek, who has been vocal during community forums as well, told GoLocal, "My experience with First Student has been terrible. There were two times when I was trying to track down my daughter's bus (once when it was over an hour late). First Student would put me on hold and never come back -- I called three times and finally got the answer, "They'll be there soon". At one point when I was trying to find out why my daughter's ride was so much longer this year, they kept forwarding me to different people so that I actually talked to the same people several times."

Meek continued, "Frustrating is not even the word. In my personal experience, they either seem to not know where their busses are at a given moment, or don't care to find out. I think it is evident how little they care about the parents by the fact that they have not responded to any of our requests and did not attend any of the meetings."

A representative from First Student said that there were in fact representatives from the company at both the JCC forum last week, and Monday night's school board meeting.  

"Our Location Manager, as well as Assistant Managers attended these meetings and listened to the concerns expressed," said First Student's Stephanie Creech.  "We are in ongoing conversation with the district, particularly with regard to the routes."

Officials React -- and Seek Accountability

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Providence School Board President Keith Oliveira, who in addition to saying the board will be bringing back in the consultants who drafted the maligned bussing overhaul, has pledged along with Schools Superintendent Lusi to meeting with First Student reps to air parents' grievances about performance as well.

Ward 2 City Councilman Sam Zurier announced over the weekend that he would be introducing a resolution in response to the fact that "First Student has leverage because previous contracts have stipulated that a vendor must garage its buses in Providence to qualify to bid."

"I have drafted a resolution the City Council will consider at its next meeting that would urge the School Department to dispense with this condition when the school bus contract goes out to bid next year," wrote Zurier. "If there is competition among bidders, there will be a better chance to have the best possible company with a contract that ensures more accountability."

Zurier explained that the issue of "timeliness" of buses has been a constant problem that's been around for years, but has reached a peak in this current one.

Regarding the bus yard provision, Zurier said he would like to see the contract process updated so that other qualified companies could bid -- and be incentivized to locate in Providence for tax and revenue purposes, rather than the mandate that currently narrows the playing field to First Student.

In addition, he noted that with improved technology, the vendor and school department could work better to utilize the tools, such as robo-calls and messages to alert parents.

"This has been a messy process, but I think the service is going to be better,' said Zurier, noting the efforts of Oliveira in particular in responding to community concerns.  

First Student Defends Record

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According to their website, First Student is the "leading school bus operator in the U.S. and Canada, with a fleet of approximately 54,000 school buses and a number one ranking according to SchoolBus Fleet’s annual top contractors’ survey.  Our bus fleet travels 600 million miles per year — the equivalent of 1,200 round trips to the moon.  We operate in 38 states and 9 Canadian provinces.We operate approximately 600 locations and approximately 1,400 school districts."

Creech told GoLocal, "First Student is committed to the safety of the students we transport each and every day. Safety is our core value, one which we take very seriously. We work diligently with the school systems with whom we are partnered to ensure the safety of our children, as well as the efficiency of our service.

As each new school year starts, it is not uncommon for there can be delays First Student and parents get accustomed to the routes. First Student continues to work with the school district to make the necessary adjustments to routes to improve the efficiency, while ensuring safety. We are fully committed to providing safe, efficient transportation for our families to rely on."

Meek told GoLocal that the parent group wasn't blaming the bus drivers.

"I think in most cases the fault does not rest with the bus drivers who are doing their best with impossible routes," she said.

 
 

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