Council takes aim at school bus woes

The Department of Education fielded nearly 130,000 complaints about bus service in the first month of the 2018 school year. Photo: Chris Sampson, via Flickr

Bills under consideration would make real-time bus GPS location data available to parents, expand DOE disclosure requirements on delays

By Michael Garofalo

Following a bumpy start to the school year for the 150,000 NYC public school students who rely on buses to get to class each day, city legislators are pushing a package of bills intended to improve the struggling pupil transportation system.

Complaints of no-show buses, late arrivals and drivers getting lost on their routes abounded during the opening weeks of the school year. In September alone, students experienced over 27,000 bus-related delays, according to Department of Education data, which cites heavy traffic and mechanical problems as the most common reasons for delays. The agency fielded nearly 130,000 complaints through its school bus helpline in September — 20,000 more than during the same period last year — many from worried parents in search of kids on tardy buses.

The City Council is weighing a bill would address these concerns by requiring DOE to implement GPS tracking on each of the 9,000 yellow buses that transport public school students and giving parents access to real-time location data. The GPS legislation is one piece of a seven-bill bundle — known as the Student Transportation Oversight Package, or “STOP” — aimed at increasing the transparency and efficiency of the bus system.

At an Oct. 16 hearing on the STOP bills, Council Speaker Corey Johnson noted that delays have been a chronic problem with the start of each school year and attributed recurring issues to DOE “mismanagement.”

“Every year starts with a higher rate of delays caused by major traffic because the Department of Education has not equipped bus companies or drivers with information early enough for drivers to familiarize themselves with their route and map out their timing,” Johnson said. “It is unconscionable to me that year after year the Department of Education’s insufficient planning is exacerbating the stress felt by families starting a new school year.”

Johnson is the sponsor of a bill that would expand DOE disclosure requirements of policies regarding complaints about bus drivers. Other STOP legislation would require DOE to establish a “school bus bill of rights,” make bus routes public at least one month before the start of the school year, and file regular reports on transportation times, driver qualifications and other topics.

Ben Kallos, who represents much of the Upper East Side in the City Council, is the sponsor of the GPS bill. “Once parents are able to track their children’s buses, we’ll no longer hear the annual first-week-of-school stories from parent whose kids got lost on a bus and were missing for several hours,” Kallos said.

School Chancellor Richard Carranza, who joined the Department of Education in April, apologized to students and families affected by bussing delays in the first weeks of school, which he called “completely unacceptable.”

In the midst of the September bus failures, Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, a top DOE official in charge of transportation. Carranza subsequently assigned longtime DOE administrator Kevin Moran to oversee the agency’s Office of Pupil Transportation, which contracts with private vendors to provide bus school bus service. Special education and elementary school students make up the bulk of the population eligible for bus service.

Moran explained that all buses serving special education students, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all buses, are already equipped with GPS. Moran said that he is “interested in exploring” the expansion of the technology to all buses. Last summer, Moran said, DOE undertook a small-scale study to explore the viability of sharing location data with parents via a phone application. Moran said DOE plans to expand the study in the spring of 2019.