Avoiding fresh Baton Rouge school bus crisis a high priority | Education – The Advocate

With memories fresh of the horrific start to the last school year, East Baton Rouge Parish school officials say they are working hard to be ready this August when it comes to student transportation, but problems still abound and some solutions are still being determined.

“We were determined to get to the bottom of the problem instead of dancing around it and discussing platitudes, generalities and patchwork decisions that we’ve tried in the past,” interim Chief of Operations John McCann told parish School Board members last week.

Board Vice President Patrick Martin V warned district administrators to do whatever is needed to prevent a repeat of last year when schools reopen in August, just six weeks from now.

“I don’t know if I can be sure that nine of us are unanimous on anything other than we never want to go through what we did last year ever again,” Martin said of the board.

Last August, the system began the school year with a severe shortage of drivers and working buses, leading to many children being stranded or delayed in getting to and from school. Drivers staged a two-day sickout, joined on the second day by similarly discontented cafeteria workers, forcing the cancellation of classes.

A few months ago, the school system hired Huntsville, Alabama-based LEAN Frog Consulting to review a few key problem areas in the district Transportation Department. Bryon Headrick, LEAN Frog’s president and co-founder, presented his findings so far at the board meeting Thursday.

Board President Carla Powell-Lewis was impressed.

“This is possibly the most solid information we’ve received on transportation since we started this tenure on the board,” said Powell-Lewis, who is one of five board members who took office in January 2023.

When Headrick started his work, the school system had 901 buses in its fleet, but hundreds of them were inoperable. The school system recently sold more than 100 of them as surplus, but its current fleet is still too big, Headrick said.

“Physical buses, you have had way more than you needed,” Headrick said.

Here a few of Headrick’s other initial findings:

  • Less than 6% of the district’s 648 operating buses are spares. Similar districts keep 15% to 20% of their bus fleets as spares.
  • The district employs too few true auto mechanics, 13, for a district its size; these mechanics are paid below average for similar districts, and several of these individuals are nearing retirement age.
  • The maintenance shop lacks proper processes and practices, and its work order software is obsolete.
  • Pay for bus drivers needs to be restructured to better align with other school districts, with starting drivers paid less than peers but veteran drivers paid more than peers.
  • Special education buses are not yet using the BusPlanner routing software that the school system purchased in a hurry last fall after other newly purchased software failed to work as advertised.

Board member Mike Gaudet said the school system has miles to go to develop good information systems for student transportation. He said in the past getting good answers to basic questions about transportation has often been far too difficult.

“The lack of information was astounding,” he said.

The district has taken some steps already.

In March, after the abrupt resignation of Transportation Director Kelvin Ridgley after just seven months on the job, the district promoted Rob Howle, a bus supervisor and former Liberty High principal, to replace him on an interim basis. In May, Chauncey Moore, a driver training and safety officer who also briefly led the transportation department, filled the vacant position of assistant transportation director. Like Howle, Moore has interim status.

This school year, the school system is leasing new buses as opposed to buying them as it has in the past. Unlike purchased buses, which the district has to maintain in-house, the leasing company will handle maintenance costs.

The school system’s annual budget, which was approved Thursday, increases how much the district spends leasing buses by $2.7 million.

The new budget also includes across-the-board employee pay raises, including a $1,300 annual pay raise for support workers. For instance, starting bus drivers will see their annual pay increase from $19,150 to $20,450 a year.

Large, one-time stipends instituted last year to calm the transportation crisis, however, are going away, so drivers’ actual paychecks will be more than they have been historically but lower than they were last year.

Here are other steps being taken:

  • A request for proposals to outsource bus maintenance services, which should come back within the next 60 days.
  • Creating a new, in-house work request system for the maintenance shop.
  • Temporary hiring of a technician to repair hundreds of broken GPS locators on buses. Failure to locate buses was a big source of parent complaints last year.
  • A pending relaunch of the much criticized Where’s The Bus app.
  • Requiring bus drivers to check in and check out each day.
  • More frequent classes to train new bus drivers.
  • Piggybacking on a national contract with NAPA Auto Parts that could save as much as $500,000 on the purchase of auto parts and services.

Board member Martin said the request for proposals for maintenance services is particularly important.

“I just want us to move as fast as humanly possible and do it,” Martin said.


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