slides: Prov School Bus Company Fined Millions Nationally
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
The financial repercussions, which have been reported by a range of news outlets, have been a result of buses being late, as well as hits for environmental transgressions. In addition, even more issues have come to light, including other districts with problems similar to Providence, a First Student driver charged with DWI, and other sites tracking First Student slip-ups in the news.
See First Student Fines - and News - in Slideshow BELOW
School bus issues in Providence in recent weeks have ranged from a bus that got lost with students on it (who eventually got off ), to the question of monitors not being on school buses.
At public forums, however, one common theme that kept recurring was that buses were arriving -- and coming home from -- schools late, and parents were becoming increasingly upset at the length of time students were spending on buses, and not in schools.
Parent advocate Kira Weidner Greene, who has helped spearhead the effort of parents voicing their concerns, told GoLocal, "The city cut approximately $2 million in funding to transportation in the same school year they claimed they had unexpected large increases in student population. How does that make sense? Also, let's not forget that neighborhood schools were closed all over the city. Combine closed schools, student population increase and a transportation budget cut - how could anyone in charge of this not realize it would in the end result in poor and erratic bus service?"
Parents Pointing Multiple Fingers -- and Questions at First Student
And a number of parents have given accounts of problems with First Student this year, from not being able to reach the bus yard by phone to get answers when buses are late, to being told erroneous information, or simply not being happy with the way they were being treated.
Said Greene, "First Student is a contracted company hired by Providence School Department and the City and they are ultimately accountable here. It seems to be a perfect storm of budget cuts, a bus company lacking basic protocols and service, a school department that is overwhelmed and mismanaged and city budget cuts."
She continued, "The bus drivers are being given an almost impossible task of getting to stops on time and delivering students on time with longer routes as well as doubled-up routes. Some drivers seem to wait in the morning until the correct time to leave the stop - parents notice this and appreciate those drivers. But some drivers leave early -- perhaps they are under pressure to deliver the kids on-time and prioritize that."
Henry Barnard parent Michele Meek, who has been vocal during community forums as well, told GoLocal, "My experience with First Student has been terrible. There were two times when I was trying to track down my daughter's bus (once when it was over an hour late). First Student would put me on hold and never come back -- I called three times and finally got the answer, "They'll be there soon". At one point when I was trying to find out why my daughter's ride was so much longer this year, they kept forwarding me to different people so that I actually talked to the same people several times."
Meek continued, "Frustrating is not even the word. In my personal experience, they either seem to not know where their busses are at a given moment, or don't care to find out. I think it is evident how little they care about the parents by the fact that they have not responded to any of our requests and did not attend any of the meetings."
A representative from First Student said that there were in fact representatives from the company at both the JCC forum last week, and Monday night's school board meeting.
"Our Location Manager, as well as Assistant Managers attended these meetings and listened to the concerns expressed," said First Student's Stephanie Creech. "We are in ongoing conversation with the district, particularly with regard to the routes."
Officials React -- and Seek Accountability
Ward 2 City Councilman Sam Zurier announced over the weekend that he would be introducing a resolution in response to the fact that "First Student has leverage because previous contracts have stipulated that a vendor must garage its buses in Providence to qualify to bid."
"I have drafted a resolution the City Council will consider at its next meeting that would urge the School Department to dispense with this condition when the school bus contract goes out to bid next year," wrote Zurier. "If there is competition among bidders, there will be a better chance to have the best possible company with a contract that ensures more accountability."
Zurier explained that the issue of "timeliness" of buses has been a constant problem that's been around for years, but has reached a peak in this current one.
Regarding the bus yard provision, Zurier said he would like to see the contract process updated so that other qualified companies could bid -- and be incentivized to locate in Providence for tax and revenue purposes, rather than the mandate that currently narrows the playing field to First Student.
In addition, he noted that with improved technology, the vendor and school department could work better to utilize the tools, such as robo-calls and messages to alert parents.
"This has been a messy process, but I think the service is going to be better,' said Zurier, noting the efforts of Oliveira in particular in responding to community concerns.
First Student Defends Record
Creech told GoLocal, "First Student is committed to the safety of the students we transport each and every day. Safety is our core value, one which we take very seriously. We work diligently with the school systems with whom we are partnered to ensure the safety of our children, as well as the efficiency of our service.
As each new school year starts, it is not uncommon for there can be delays First Student and parents get accustomed to the routes. First Student continues to work with the school district to make the necessary adjustments to routes to improve the efficiency, while ensuring safety. We are fully committed to providing safe, efficient transportation for our families to rely on."
Meek told GoLocal that the parent group wasn't blaming the bus drivers.
"I think in most cases the fault does not rest with the bus drivers who are doing their best with impossible routes," she said.
Boston - $800,000
In 2012, The Boston Globe reported that First Student got slapped with $800,000 in fines for "chronic tardiness" in the Bay State's capital city.
A rep for First Student said, "In the Boston situation, we found there were many factors beyond our control affecting the timetable of our bus arrivals: traffic, road construction, and traffic accidents, as well as the number of students at each stop. Additionally, in the case of Boston, it was the district who handled the routing."
Boston contracted with a new vendor starting in 2013.
Pawtucket, RI - $128,000
First Student was hit with a fine of $128,000 for being in violation of the state's anti-idling law in 2009 (WPRI.com).
First Student told Chanel 12 at the time, "We appreciate the EPA assisting us in identifying areas for improvement. We will be investing $340,000 in pollution control systems on our buses in Rhode Island, and Connecticut and we will improve the monitoring of buses idling unnecessarily."
Similar Problems in 2013
The Wissahickon (PA) School District appears to have started off the 2013 in a similar way as Providence.
Eric Devlin with the Ambler Gazette wrote earlier this month, "It appears for many students riding the school bus in the Wissahickon School District last week, the first week of school did not go very smoothly.
"After numerous complaints from parents, the Wissahickon School Board began its Sept. 10 meeting by addressing the issues and attempting to reassure the public.
Many on the board voiced their frustrations with the situation and challenged the administration and its private contracted bus service, First Student, to do better."
First Student Driver DWI
A First Student bus driver in New York was charged with DWI last month, whec.com reported in Brighton/Pittsford.
According to reports, police think she was intoxicated when she was driving children on her school bus.
A rep for First Student said, "We take these allegations very seriously. The safety of the students we transport is at the core of everything we do. First Student has a zero tolerance for employees who put others risk. The driver has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation."
Tumbr on FS "Problems"
A tumblr account was dedicated to "Problems with First Student Corp," billing itself as a "collection of information about First Student corporation's service record in school districts other than Concord."
In addition, a Facebook page for First Student includes a litany of complaints under "Recent Posts by Others" on the right-hand side.
- Providence Parents Blast Busing Problems at School Board Meeting
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