MILLBURN, NJ - Parents lined up at the Millburn Board of Education meeting to express their fury that the school administration had not yet successfully resolved what has been called a “colossal failure” in student busing this fall. The meeting Monday night ran well into the evening finally wrapping up at midnight.
Despite assurances from district officials that revised bus routes implemented on September 25 would address their concerns about chronic delays, unsafe stops, and unduly long routes, parents complained that the new routes were not any better and, in some cases, the situation had only worsened.
Parents of the newly - opened Washington School were particularly livid, as students who were scheduled to take buses on revised routes 1 through 4 were informed as late as Monday morning by the district that the bus company will not be making those routes.
Parents had no choice but to drop off their kids or make other arrangements. While the bus company did run the said routes in the afternoon, some parents, frustrated by the uncertainty surrounding busing that has persisted into the fourth week of the school year, said they felt they could no longer rely on the bus and elected to pick up their kids.
The board of education anticipated that parents would be upset, moving the location of the meeting at Millburn High School from the library to the auditorium. While the turnout was ultimately not as heavy as expected, the board had to cut early to the public comment period as parents were anxious to be heard.
In early remarks, Millburn School District Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton outlined the steps the district had taken to address the chaotic transportation situation these past few weeks, including devising new routes, adding a new Washington school route, adding more buses for the private schools and providing chaperones for the buses. She acknowledged that things had not worked as she had expected. “I had every expectation that the revisions we had put in place and the long hours that many people had put into fixing the buses was going to work,” she said. “I know how disappointed you are, how truly frustrated you are. I am infuriated.”
The Superintendent faulted the bus companies for failing to comply with instructions to practice revised routes provided by the district’s transportation department. The drivers were expected to practice the revised routes, make edits and hand over a final route to the district before Monday.
Burton said that while both companies had confirmed to her that their drivers were practicing revised routes, the Jordan Bus Company, which she initially did not identify, had, in fact, not done so for the four Washington school routes they are assigned. Burton said she had waited until Monday morning for the bus company to hand over the final routes and did not receive them.
“I have said to the bus companies, ‘This is unacceptable,’” said Burton.
Some board members questioned if more could not have been done by the administration to ensure that all issues were ironed out earlier. “I don’t think the bus company alone can be held responsible," said board member Regina Truitt. “I do not know what personnel is handling this in the district now, but I feel like that needs to be revisited,” she said.
Parents too were unwilling to let district officials off the hook, complaining that the revised routes had not addressed prior issues on safety.
“It is very upsetting to listen to Dr. Burton talk about all the hours they spent on revising the first routes, -- which were ridiculous -- because the revised routes are equally ridiculous,” said Short Hills parent Natalie Cekleniak. “And with all due respect, it is impossible for us to imagine how any group of people who got together and tried to make these bus routes work could have possibly published these revised routes as something that was going to work.”
She cited as an example her child’s bus route that originally had 25 stops and took an hour and 15 minutes to get to school had since been revised to 24 stops, effectively changing nothing.
One parent said the bus route had been changed in the past few weeks on advice from parent chaperones to allow her 10-year old daughter to be picked up from a safe stop on Old Short Hills road. But the revised route had instead been moved back to an unsafe stop. Her daughter had to wait on a busy street for the bus while she dropped off her other child to another elementary school.
“You redid all these routes. These buses were supposed to be safer and faster and more timely, and yet, my bus is back to being at an unsafe location,” she said. “So, you didn’t fix the problem. I am frustrated because I need the bus, I cannot be at two places at once. I cannot be at two schools at the same time.”
A sore point for most parents who voiced their grievances Monday was what they considered a lack of communication and transparency from the school administration
Parents said that their emails offering constructive feedback and suggestions were largely ignored. “I have been emailing and nobody is responding to me. I cannot imagine that at this point I am a paying customer and nobody is responding to my questions about why the bus is not coming," said parent Ronnie Most of Tennyson Drive. “I want to understand why the bus company is not being held accountable,” she added.
The board said they are hiring a third-party investigator to understand who to hold accountable for the transportation mess and will be going through their contracts with the bus company to see if penalties could be imposed.
Members also assured parents that they will respond to emails. “We take every comment seriously,” said board President Emily Jaffe at the end of the discussion, adding that the board members will be focused on exploring how they could devote more resources to solving the problem.