MILLBURN, NJ – Millburn school district officials apologized to parents for the busing issues that have occurred in the early days of the school year at Monday's Board of Education meeting. They assured residents that revised routes expected to minimize delays and ensure student safety would be implemented beginning next Monday.

The school year got off to a rocky start for students taking the bus, particularly for fifth-graders attending the newly opened Washington School. Parents complained of buses arriving late, failing to pick up some students, rides lasting as long as two hours due to complex routes and unsafe stops at busy streets.

The district responded to the problem by temporarily requesting parent chaperones on buses to help drivers navigate unfamiliar routes. Meanwhile, the district brought in expert consultants last Thursday to assess all 92 bus routes for safety concerns along busy streets, intersections, route distances and numbers of students on the bus.

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Based on the revised assessment, an additional route was added to Washington School and portions of some routes have been deleted or combined to make them safer and more efficient, Schools Superintendent Christine Burton said in an update to parents Sunday.

The new routes are being manually tested this week for accuracy. Drivers will be given time to familiarize themselves with the routes and do a dry run before Monday. New bus passes are slated to be issued electronically to students on Friday, September 15.

“I am well aware that the unfortunate events that have transpired this week raise doubts about the safety, management and trust that families have in the leadership of the district,” Burton said at the Board of Education meeting Monday, reiterating what she said in her earlier letter to parents. “I want to assure you that I acknowledge that this was a colossal failure and I take full responsibility for it.” 

Burton added that the district is appointing a third party to investigate the matter and will make “personnel changes” if necessary.

Parents urged the board of education to take a more proactive approach to the transportation problem and come up with longer - term solutions.

“There have been longstanding transportation issues in the community that were just not sprung upon us this August,” said parent Cari Strassberg. “We really need you to avoid crises from happening rather than react well to the crisis.”

Burton has attributed a confluence of factors such as the addition of a new school building, significantly higher bus ridership and new traffic patterns in town complicated a hectic first week of bus operations, to this year’s chaotic transportation problems.

Parents, however, said that they had come to expect confusion in the first few weeks of school, given the town’s history of transportation problems.

“Every year, during the first 10 days, busing is a problem,” said Subhadra Sridharan, whose daughter attends Washington School and has been taking the bus for the past five years. “Why are we always firefighting? Why aren’t we proactively looking at this over summer and looking at the most efficient routes?”

Louie Shen, a candidate for the Millburn Board of Education and whose children attend Glenwood Elementary, suggested that the board consider a subcommittee or special task force to deal with transportation problems. “People are not really so angry about last week as they are worried about what will happen next year,” he said.

Still, some parents were looking for more guidance from the board on what to expect in terms of wait times next week when with the implementation of the new busing routes.

While Burton did not elaborate on the details of the new routes, she mentioned that the revised routes are expected to average about 30 minutes.

A Washington school mom, who chaperoned bus number 4, suggested that the district consider hiring permanent chaperones for the buses. Drivers were operating the buses without navigation systems, relying instead on instructions on a paper that they had to read while driving through narrow and busy roads. “It is a lot to ask a driver to both navigate a community they are not familiar with, without a GPS, and deal with behavior issues on the bus as a result of a really long bus ride,” she said.

Superintendent Burton said she would contact the Belair bus company about getting a second person on the bus.