An angry crowd confronted the Kent County Board of Education at a special meeting at the school board office in Rock Hall, Monday, Sept. 11, where parents and other residents aired grievances about school buses. For more than four hours, the board heard calls for its members to resign, for the bus service contract to be terminated, and threats of lawsuits – along with detailed accounts of children waiting hours for buses to appear, and parents missing work because of the mix-ups.
The crowd, which overflowed the meeting room into the hallway outside, was there to complain that the Baltimore-based contractor for bus service, Reliable Transportation, was not delivering the service it was brought in to provide. Speaker after speaker told of drivers running late – often more than an hour – missing pickups, dropping students off at the wrong place, and sometimes failing to appear altogether. Some complained of inadequate safety equipment, dangerous driving and rude behavior by the drivers. And almost all were angry because neither the school system nor the bus contractor provided adequate communication about the problems and the effect on individual students. Shouts of “Do your job,” “It’s not working,” and “Fix it now” were combined with charges of arrogance and putting a price tag on children’s safety.
Karen Couch, Kent County Superintendent of Education, began the meeting by summarizing the background of the dispute. The school board, facing a budget deficit of $2 million at the beginning of the year, took several steps, including closing the Worton and Millington elementary schools, to try to eliminate the deficit. One of the board’s choices was putting the county’s transportation contract out for bids. It received two responses, one from Reliable and the other from the local coalition of bus contractors that previously served the county. Reliable was the low bidder after the local coalition raised its previous contract price to $1.2 million.
Reliable attempted to hire local drivers, with mixed success, Couch said. Several of the local drivers who initially showed interest dropped out or failed to appear for work, she said. As a result, many bus drivers were unfamiliar with local roads; additionally, they had long commutes from the western shore that made it difficult for them to arrive in time for their runs. Couch said the schools expected students to be transported safely, efficiently, and in a timely manner – “And they’re not.” She said the board
had spent most of a 90-minute closed session consulting with legal counsel considering its options for resolving the problem.
After Couch’s comments, school board President Trish McGee opened the floor to residents who had signed up to speak. All told, more than 30 came to the microphone, and several more shouted out questions from the audience, interrupting the speakers and those attempting to answer their questions. McGee frequently asked the audience to let the speakers or board members be heard. A request that speakers limit their remarks to three minutes was ignored almost from the start. As the evening went on, there was more and more shouting of questions and comments from the audience.
Many of the speakers offered variations of the same story – children waiting long times for the bus, not knowing what bus was serving their route, drivers missing stops or refusing to stop at designated locations, calls to the school or school board not being answered, mothers missing work hours to get their children to school. Worry about their children’s safety and the effect of missing classes were also common themes.
One major concern was the lack of radio communication with the bus drivers. In previous years, the transportation manager was in constant radio contact with the drivers. One parent said that last week one bus ran out of gas and the bus – with driver and all the students – just sat on the roadside until someone at Molly’s restaurant noticed that they needed help. The driver could not, by law, leave the students alone in the bus. But the driver could not radio in the problem. Thus neither the school nor the parents knew where the children were. It is not known why a cell phone was not used to contact the bus supervisor about the gas problem. Dixon said that he was not aware of any buses were without working radios, but that he would check on it.
Several parents said they were risking their jobs by taking time to wait with their children or to drive them to school. At least one child was apparently taken all the way to Middletown, Delaware – it was not clear how or when the student finally got home. Another parent said her child requires a seat belt for health reasons, but the bus he rode does not have any. Several said the school district has exposed itself to numerous liability issues because of Reliable’s failure to provide safety equipment.
Rebecca Herz-Smith and Francoise Sullivan, members of the Support Our Schools parents’ group (SOS), presented a list of 18 questions members of their group had for the board. Several were directed to Timothy Dixon, CEO of Reliable, who was present at the meeting. Asked what steps were being taken to prevent delays caused by long commutes for out-of-county drivers, Dixon said all efforts were being made to hire local drivers. He said that many who initially signed up failed to appear for work. He said Baltimore drivers were being used because of a shortage of locals. He said Reliable offered “the highest pay in the area” plus significant benefits, and made every effort to get drivers trained for the works and familiar with the routes.
SOS asked about missing safety equipment including lights and safety bars. Couch said the equipment is not required by Maryland law but is a county option. She said that in response to complaints, the county is using grant funds to install the equipment, which has been received by the maintenance department and will be installed soon.
Asked how the board will respond if Reliable can’t fulfill the contract, Couch said the county is exploring its options, but cannot discuss details at present.
SOS asked if there is a master list of what buses are on what routes, and which children are assigned to each bus, and whether it can be made available to parents. Dixon said he would provide the list to the board. “I don’t know how to get it to parents,” he said.
Sullivan suggested giving each student an ID number that would be available to parents to protect student’s privacy.
The meeting was live-streamed from SOS’s FaceBook page, bringing in an audience of several hundred more. The SOS webpage states that its purpose is “Prioritizing funding and support for public education in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan for Kent County.”
Jerry Bramble, who said he had 34 years’ experience as a school bus driver, said he believed the problems could have been avoided if Couch had negotiated with the local drivers’ coalition before signing up with Reliable. He said Reliable has a poor track record.
Couch said Bramble’ summary was accurate, but the law doesn’t allow negotiations after a bidding process is complete.
Bramble said the first step to solving the problem would be for the county to reinstate its former supervisor of transportation, whose loss deprived the county of a significant body of experience. He said the next step would be to terminate Reliable, which he said was in clear breach of contract; loud applause greeted this suggestion. The final step, he said was for the board to resign. He accused the board and Couch of playing “liberal politics” and “sugar-coating” the situation. He advised the audience to “buckle your seat belts – we’re in for a long, long ride.”
Several parents expressed anger over Couch’s salary and the fact that she received a raise when her contract was renewed last year. McGee said Couch got a one-time 2 percent raise – the same as every other staff member in the school system. Couch’s total salary is $155,448, McGee said. The actual numbers did little to appease other speakers, some of whom mentioned their own salaries – one woman said she makes $38,000 and is in danger of losing her job because the bus crisis has made her miss work.
Lack of communication was another repeated complaint. Parents said their calls to the schools or the administration’s office were not answered and messages were not answered. Couch said that the staff was working overtime to answer calls, but the volume of calls made it impossible to respond to everyone in real time.
Jodi Bortz, another member of SOS, said money can fix the problems. She said residents need to tell the Kent County Commissioners that education is a priority. She said the commissioners had cut their contribution to the school budget by more than $1 million over the last two years, and would probably make more cuts, leading to further reductions in service at the school district. “It’s your tax dollars they’re spending on other things instead of our schools,” she said. You need to tell the people who control the tax money where to put it.”
School board member Wendy Costa suggested that parents and others with time available could volunteer to help get through the bus crisis until a long-term solution is found. She said she was willing to go to a school and watch over students until parents can pick them up. She also suggested that parents who drive to work can drop students off at school on the way. Neither suggestion was popular with the crowd.
The last speaker of the evening was Misty Mett, a freshman at Kent County High School, who offered a student’s perspective on the bus problem. She said it was causing stress because of worry about her younger siblings and about missing class time, to the detriment of their education. “It feels like we’re losing respect for the county and the students,” she said.
By the end of the evening, more than 30 residents had spoken, and a number more had left before their name was called. McGee summed up the situation by saying she was appalled at the delivery of bus service this year. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, Mr. Dixon,” she said. She said she voted for the contract with Reliable, but never imagined it would cause the trouble it did. “We’ve got to figure out how to balance our budget,” she said.
Other school board members essentially echoed McGee’s sentiments. Jeff Reed said he was appalled and embarrassed by the situation and had lost sleep over the delays and mistakes. Joe Goetz said the problems “come down to communication and safety,” and promised they would be corrected.
Couch said she was “deeply sorry” for the problems and that solving them was very important to the administration. She said she was coming into the office at 4 a.m. and working late hours because of it. She said the problems would be solved as quickly as possible, but that she could not state a firm deadline. Pressed, she said it would be a couple of weeks at the outside.
Letters to Editor
Kathleen OGrady Melson says
The freshman is my niece. Her name is Misty Mett.
Tristan Stone says
Not really intending anything but a correction here, I’m Misty’s step-dad, her last name is Mett, not Mintz. Misty Mett. Thanks.
Peter Heck says
Fixed! Thanks for the correction. You must be very proud of Misty. She did a good job of representing the students.
Jan Eliassen says
Instead of a “lowest bidder only” contract, the criteria should have included the value-added to the taxpayers of keeping those dollars working in Kent County plus points for proven performance. Lowest cost is rarely the best value.