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Slow, bumpy road to fixing Broward school bus service

After two weeks of unreliable school bus service in Broward, school district officials are still arguing among themselves over who’s to blame, with no firm timetable for fixing all the issues.

A trickle of information that surfaced Friday made at least one thing clear: The problem is big.

Broward’s transportation department fielded more than 14,000 calls during a four-day span examined by district administrators, with more than 1,000 “issues logged” during each of the first three days of school. The numbers were tallied in response to a request by School Board member Robin Bartleman, who earlier in the week said such figures were necessary to “help us monitor the department’s progress and help us explain the situation to parents.”

Though the numbers contain a sliver of good news — by Wednesday the number of issues logged had decreased to 433 — the picture that emerges is one of a school bus system mired in dysfunction with no clear resolution in sight.

“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Bartleman said. “I’m so angry and frustrated, I can only imagine how the parents feel.”

It’s unclear how many of the phone calls logged were repeat calls from the same parents or how many of the problems identified were solved. Since school began Aug. 20, Broward parents have complained of school buses arriving late, students being stuck on irregularly long bus trips, and students being stranded when buses simply don’t arrive at all.

“They definitely want the problem to be solved,” said Maxine Lewers of the Broward County Council of PTA/PTSA. “This has never happened before.”

The two leaders most criticized for the bus mess — Superintendent Robert Runcie and Transportation Director Chester Tindall — were both unavailable for comment Friday, according to school district spokeswoman Tracy Clark. Tindall, whom Runcie recruited, has repeatedly declined to comment since the bus problems began.

Last week, Runcie promised there would be steady improvement in Broward’s bus service, as well as a new commitment to tracking bus lateness and no-shows so that progress could be accurately measured. Long-term, Runcie said he envisioned GPS technology allowing parents to track the location of their child’s bus with a peek at their smartphone.

“That’s where we’re going,” Runcie said. “I don’t want parents to have to call us anymore.”

But that tech-savvy future seems far away today, with tardy school buses such a pervasive problem that school leaders have started to worry if student performance will suffer from all the early-morning class time being missed.

Runcie initially blamed factors such as software system upgrades and changes to some schools’ schedules as the reason for the crisis. Runcie’s critics, however, say the superintendent’s overhaul of the transportation department was overly ambitious, and disrupted operations by changing too much, too fast.

The department has historically been overbudget and, at times, faced allegations of widespread nepotism. Runcie this year sought to streamline transportation, and in the process he identified $14 million in savings that was used to hire additional teachers.

This week, Runcie raised the possibility that some transportation department employees were deliberately sabotaging service because they were unhappy with his restructuring efforts. Runcie offered little evidence to back up this claim, however.

Bus drivers reacted skeptically, and angrily, to the notion that rank-and-file employees were willfully tarnishing the school district’s reputation.

“Would you be happy if somebody said you were sabotaging your job?” asked bus driver Grover Monroe. “You can’t make it better if you’re going to kick the people that are working for you in the crotch.”

In the weeks before school started, School Board member Nora Rupert noted that bus drivers repeatedly expressed worries, to both the board and to Runcie, that bus route preparations were perilously behind schedule. Those warnings should have been given more weight, Rupert said.

“I don’t think they were really listened to,” she said. “Their expertise was completely discounted.”

Rupert set a 3 p.m. Friday deadline for Runcie to provide a detailed analysis of what’s gone wrong with bus service this school year. That deadline came and went with no such information provided.

Rupert said fixing the problems will require collaboration and unity going forward. Runcie should apologize to bus drivers for his unsubstantiated “conspiracy” talk, she added.

“I’m frustrated that we haven’t been able to put this together as a team,” Rupert said.