In Superintendent Robert Runcie’s quest to restore confidence in Broward’s troubled school district, the student transportation department was supposed to be Exhibit A.
By fixing a school bus system long plagued by nepotism, overspending and inefficiency, Runcie could show that his arrival last October indeed represented real change. The early indicators were good, as Runcie quickly identified about $14 million in operational cost savings within the department — money that was used to help fund additional teachers the district sorely needed.
It had all the makings of a success story — until the first day of school on Monday.
Beginning that day, and continuing all through the week, Broward’s school bus service was an embarrassing mess: delayed bus pass mailings meant students didn’t know which bus to take; students who got on their bus arrived at school hours late because of delays; parents abruptly had to take time off work to transport their children, thanks to buses that simply never came.
“This should have been a week of glory,” Broward School Board member Katherine Leach said. “Instead, it’s a week of frustration.”
For parents who — in the midst of busing chaos — couldn’t locate their kids, frustration quickly turned to fear. Debbie Colangelo of Davie was about ready to call police after she found out a school bus dropped off her 12-year-old daughter, Kayla, about seven miles away from home, even though Kayla and four of her middle school classmates told the driver that wasn’t where they lived.
Colangelo left work early and drove around for 40 minutes, hoping to spot her daughter, but not having any luck.
“Your mind starts to wander, unfortunately,” Colangelo said of that frantic search. “They’re just putting so many kids in danger.”
In the end, one of the other students with Kayla called a parent from a cell phone. That parent picked up the kids and took them all home.
Runcie said Friday he had not been made aware of that particular mishap, but that “every single one of our employees needs to really behave like they’re stakeholders in the business.”
When it came to explaining how Broward’s bus service went so horribly wrong, Runcie told reporters at a Friday news conference that a variety of factors were at play, not all of which were the district’s doing.
For example, Runcie said that a new state requirement adding an extra hour of instructional time at Florida’s 100 lowest-performing schools included eight in Broward. That meant Broward needed an additional 50 bus drivers to cover the expanded schedule.
Broward was notified by the state in “late July, early August,” Runcie told reporters, adding a last-minute challenge to the task of bus route planning.
School Board member Nora Rupert, however, disputed Runcie’s timeline, and said Broward was informed of the new state rule in May — giving it plenty of time to prepare.
“Not true,” Rupert said of Runcie’s comments. “Not true at all.”
Runcie has not given a firm date for resolving the bus problems. Though he directed some blame at the state, the superintendent did acknowledge the district’s own failings Friday, and appeared much more contrite than he had early in the week, when he had described the busing problems as a “minor glitch” that didn’t impact most families. The superintendent promised the district will be deploying dozens of additional bus drivers next week to ensure that no route goes unstaffed. Also, the district will revise its routes only once a week, instead of daily, a practice Runcie said led to confusion among drivers.