At Monday’s school board meeting (Sept. 10), School Supt. Michael Van Tassel explained the “perfect storm” that brought school bus mayhem to the first school days in the Van Buren Public Schools.
Some 20 students got home close to 7 p.m. on the second full day of school, worried parents called police, one worried driver wouldn’t let a child off unless police were there because of the upset parents, parents couldn’t get through the phone lines.
On the first day of school around 800 cars were lined up to drop students off at the high school because families hadn’t received their information on bus routes.
Problems cropped up with shuttle buses that were helping move students from here to there in the new student populations of McBride (formerly North), Owen (formerly South), Edgemont, and Savage.
Owen, Savage, and Edgemont all get out at the same time and students have to wait at one school or another.
“It was a combination of issues,” Supt. Van Tassel said. “It was not a good design from the outset.”
Besides the flaw in the transportation layout, there were schools of choice issues and daycare issues.
Van Tassel said the main solution was eliminating the shuttle buses, which involved 2,500 route changes.
He said he put central office in emergency mode, with transportation the only topic. There were six to eight people calling those with route changes. The implementation was set for Wednesday, Sept. 12.
His former executive secretary, Kathy Kovach, who had retired, came back as a volunteer without pay and worked into the evening for two days.
“We screwed up,” Van Tassel told the board audience Monday. “I’m not going to apologize. We did and we’re still not there… We didn’t do right by the parents we serve and we’re going to fix it.”
John Bojanowski, director of transportation who has been on the job for four weeks, said they called the 20 parents they could contact to tell them their students were safe on the bus. He said he wouldn’t tell the parents where the bus was because the parents wanted to go and get them.
School Board trustee Scott Russell said his daughters were two hours late, but he got Honeywell alerts two days in a row saying they would be late.
Trustee Sherry Frazier said people call the transportation department if they have a question, but they couldn’t get through. So they called the administration building and there was no answer.
“They’re not getting an answer from anyone,” Frazier said, adding the district should have made arrangements to have staff answer the phone.
Bojanowski said there is a new phone system at the transportation department and there are just three lines, with one being for fax.
Van Tassel said they hired two secretary substitutes to answer the phones at the transportation department. He said there have been hundreds and hundreds of calls.
Trustee Brent Mikulski said the district needs to reach out to the 20 parents specifically to apologize and explain.
He said he can’t imagine the feeling of a parent waiting for his son or daughter to get off the bus and he child’s not there.
Trustee Russell said the incident opened his eyes to the need to put an emergency plan in place, hoping it never has to be used.
Parent Michael Gentz noted the school day has been shortened by 15 minutes and he said he went to Edgemont a little early to pick up his child after school and found a crowd of kids out in the parking lot at the school 15 minutes before school was out. He questioned the use of time.
Van Tassel said the students were out there to make sure they were ready for the shuttle bus.
Parent Rosemary Walker said her child came home at quarter to 7 on Thursday and multiple people were out looking for her. She said a text message or some other call would have eased their fears.
She said she was in heart attack mode because she didn’t know where her little girl was.
Board President Martha Toth apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again.
“I’ve contacted everyone in our subdivision to get my daughter to school until I can trust the transportation system again,” Walker said. She added that her friend’s daughter had to sit on the floor of the bus because all the seats were full.
Walker complimented the bus driver who responded to her riders’ calls that they were hungry by digging out some M&Ms to distribute.
In other business at its Sept. 10 meeting, the school board:
• Approved paying $48,700 of school bond money to buy 100 iPad2s for all the teachers at the high school, as recommended by technology consultants Convergent Technology Partners. The purchase includes the iPad2, a second year of warranty service (Apple Care +) and a DVI to VGA converter, so teachers can display on classroom screens. “They are chomping at the bit,” said BHS Principal Abdul Madyun, speaking of his teachers who are waiting for their iPads. “There are cool things we can do with iPads”;
• Received a district enrollment report from Shonta Langford-Green, Director of Human Resources, that said there were 5,267 students in attendance Sept. 10, down about 50 students from the spring count. The district had thought there would be 90 fewer students, so this was an encouraging report. The official head count will be Oct. 6;
• Approved the requested terminations of teachers Katrina DeKleine of Owen after one year of service for other employment; Michael Koebbe of BHS after 8 years for personal reasons; Kari Montgomery of Edgemont after 9 years for other employment; and Teresita Beydoun of McBride after no years of service for other employment;
• Approved hiring Lisa Fiema as a teacher at Edgemont, starting Sept. 4, and Ann Padesky as a Spanish teacher at McBride, starting Sept. 10;
• Approved requested terminations of support staff members Beth Braden after 2 years as a food service worker, for other employment; and Mary Guimond of McBride Middle School after 12 years as a paraprofessional for resignation;
• Heard Frazier speak about how a public relations person would have helped with the transportation problem, with Van Tassel responding, “You don’t have to sell it to me. We’re looking at it.” He said Brown is looking at the vacant position;
• Heard Van Tassel explain that the district has put 4% of payroll aside for a projected increase in the cost of MPSERS (Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System) and now finds the district won’t need to pay that so he would like to give it to the employees, who gave up almost 20% of salary in the last year alone. He said there are two different lawsuits on MPSERS and has full faith that they will be settled quickly. He said the money couldn’t be given to the employees until December, but Business Manager Karen Moffitt will have to look at it first. “If we can do it, I’d like to do it … reimburse them. I feel it’s the right thing to do,” and
• Went into closed-door session to discuss contract negotiations.
Next Monday’s board workshop session (Sept. 17) was cancelled because of the transportation problems, which have those in the administration offices working 60 to 80 hour weeks, Toth said. The next regular meeting is 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the administration building when the board will get updates on transportation, enrollment, and technology expenditures for BHS.