Broward’s bumpy beginning to the school year continued on Wednesday, with school bus service still suffering from delays and mishaps, and schools Superintendent Robert Runcie encountering a growing chorus of critics.
“Somebody needs to light a fire under Runcie,” complained Fort Lauderdale parent Felicia Armstrong. “This is totally unacceptable ... this is mediocrity.”
Nearly 4,500 families began the school year on Monday still waiting to receive student bus passes in the mail – passes that list a student’s designated bus stop and pickup time.
Without that essential information, many parents were unexpectedly forced to take their children to school.
Other bus-related problems abounded, including buses running hours behind schedule, and newly drawn routes that bus drivers complained had been poorly designed.
On Wednesday, district spokeswoman Nadine Drew said busing mix-ups were still happening.
“The District is continuing to work to resolve all transportation issues,” Drew wrote in an e-mail. “We appreciate parents’ patience and apologize greatly for any inconvenience.”
Armstrong left work early on Monday to pick up her 12-year-old son from Coral Springs Middle School. Armstrong said her son, who had been dismissed from school at 2:45 p.m., called her after 5 p.m. to say he was still there, waiting for his bus ride home.
When Armstrong arrived at the school, she said she discovered her son wasn’t alone – there were five busloads of students gathered in the cafeteria, also waiting for their bus.
Runcie has partially blamed the bus problems on upgrades to the district’s internal route system, while some bus drivers say mismanagement is the real culprit.
With a School Board meeting happening on Tuesday, Runcie had to answer to the nine elected officials who jointly serve as his boss.
Those board members weren’t happy. One at a time, they faulted Runcie’s staff for ignoring early warning signs of trouble within the district’s transportation department, and for taking certain corrective actions - such as creating an information helpline for parents - only after the situation had completely deteriorated.
The district introduced its bus hotline, 754-321-4480, late in the day on Monday, after widespread reports of problems. Board member Donna Korn said she had asked that such a hotline be launched three days earlier.
“We’ve been reactive rather than proactive,” Korn complained. “We knew something was coming.”
In addition to calling the hotline, parents can talk to their child’s school if they have unresolved busing issues.
Both Korn and fellow board member Nora Rupert were themselves left in limbo after the expected bus passes never arrived for their own children.
The school bus mess marks Runcie’s first large-scale managerial failure since assuming the superintendent’s post in October, and it may well signal the end of his honeymoon period with board members. Rank-and-file bus drivers, meanwhile, were nearing the point of open revolt.
In comments to the School Board, representatives from the drivers’ union cited a lack of leadership in the transportation department. The man in charge of that department, Chester Tindall, knew Runcie professionally when the superintendent previously worked as chief of staff to the Chicago Board of Education. Tindall is one of three high-ranking Broward administrators who recently joined the district and have a relationship with Runcie from his Chicago days.
Tindall did not return a request for comment that was relayed through schools spokeswoman Tracy Clark, another Chicago transplant.
Bus drivers have complained about Tindall before. In March, about a dozen transportation workers told the School Board that Tindall was firing workers without cause, creating a hostile work environment, and refusing to sit down and discuss grievances with the employee union.
“Again and again I hear that meetings are scheduled, and management does not attend these meetings,” board members Patricia Good told Runcie on Tuesday. “I have a real problem with that.”
In an interview after Tuesday’s board meeting, Runcie stressed that busing problems have only affected a small percentage of the roughly 89,000 students who ride Broward school buses every day. Regarding his three prominent hires with Chicago roots, Runcie praised Tindall as a “highly qualified” transportation expert, and said in all three cases he was not part of the district’s evaluation committee, and kept an arms-length distance from any hiring decisions.
Runcie said there’s more than 400 high-level administrators in the school district, and of that number, “there’s only three people that I’ve known previously.”