By Linda Conner Lambeck
WESTPORT — The school district is consolidating bus routes and turning to private livery firms as efforts to get all students to school on time continue to fall short.
In recent days, out of more than 200 elementary school bus runs, about 20 have arrived at school past 9 a.m., the Board of Education was told at its meeting Monday in Staples High School.
Although most buses are late by only several minutes, Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said he ideally would like to see all students arrive at school at least five minutes before the start of school.
One bus to Coleytown Elementary School has been consistently arriving between 10 and 25 minutes after the bell has rung.
Sarah Pelz, a parent with two daughters at Coleytown, said she appreciates the efforts the district is making, but called it a frustrating nonetheless.
On most days, one daughter has reported that she missed the Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements more days than not, Pez said.
At the end of the day, she said buses have arrived at the school up to 15 minutes late to take them home.
“I know these are unprecedented times,” Pelz said. Still, she said the district should have anticipated and addressed the transportation problems by now.
Lanie List, who has two children at Greens Farms Elementary School, said she speaks for about a dozen moms in saying maybe it’s time for outside resources to be used to resolve the situation.
“I know if I get to a meeting late I am rattled,” List said. For kindergartners arriving late for class, it’s got to be hard socially and emotionally, she added.
“It’s been a mess,” Scarice told the board. “No one wants to solve this more than me.”
Assessing the impact
Scarice could not say how many students are arriving late for the school day, but assured the school board the issue remains a top priority.
It is an issue that has plagued the district throughout the pandemic and is driven in large part by a nationwide bus driver shortage. (Read here and here about similar problems that arose during the last academic year.)
As the district puts COVID in its rearview mirror, more students are back on school buses. Of some elementary school bus runs, at least two-thirds transport 50 students or more.
Another factor contributing to late buses, Scarice said, is the slim 30-minute window between elementary, middle and high school start times. That makes it more difficult for buses to finish one route before starting another, especially as the routes have been condensed and made longer.
The district has 58 buses, but only 51 drivers because of a continuing driver shortage. At times, bus company mechanics have been called on to drive routes, the board was told.
Although things have improved since the school year started in late August, Scarice said a couple of routes continue to warrant special attention and additional intervention.
“We got the message loud and clear — the board will put resources toward this,” Scarice added.
One solution that is set to start this week is the use of one or more private livery services to transport up to 20 students on the chronically late Coleytown route. Sunrise, one Fairfield County-based service being tapped has the proper credentials to transport students to school, Scarice said.
“We can’t just have an Uber drive our kids,” he said.
Other options being explored include making sure private school bus runs are efficient as possible, collapsing even more routes and exploring district-purchased buses.
Scarice said he doesn’t want to commit to spending $50,000 on a school bus if it won’t make a dent in the problem.
“It has to make sense,” he said.
Later this fall, the district is expected to have completed a transportation study to make sure it is maximizing the service it receives.
Board member Dorie Hordon asked if the district had explored combining bus stops in addition to routes.
Scarice said board policy might have to change to consolidate stops.
Board member Robert Harrington urged district administrators to stay on top of the situation and communicate clearly to parents.
“We want [students] to get to school on time,” he said.
Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.