NEWARK, NJ - It was the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday and phone calls started pouring into Newark Public Schools' central office.
Parents and guardians of special education students wanted to know where their children’s buses were.
“There were many children left at the doorstep,” said school board Chair Josephine Garcia at a business meeting on Dec. 11. “Many children not picked up. I mean, we had so many parents just call us -- all of us.”
The explanation involves a complex web of bids, routes, regulations and timing. School officials are promising to make the system better, and they’re starting to penalize bus vendors for infractions.
“The vendors who perform like that and think that is acceptable to provide that lack of service to the Newark Public Schools will be sorely disabused of that attitude in the very near future,” said the district’s business administrator, Valerie Wilson.
Contracts with bus vendors were formerly handled by the Essex County Regional Educational Services Commission. In August, the district started to handle those contracts in-house to remove the county as a middleman. Ultimately, school officials hoped this would allow the district to deal with bussing issues more quickly and find vendors who understand the district better.
“What we found is yes, there were concerns prior to this year,” said the district’s Office of Pupil Transportation director, Quanika Dukes-Spruill. “But we now have a direct pipeline with our parents as well as our vendors, so we are finding the resolution was made a lot easier as well as quicker.”
Taking on these contracts in-house is a huge undertaking for the district. About 80 vendors handle more than 500 routes, the business administrator explained. Creating those routes is almost like a science: route specialists need to take into account sizes of roads, the distance between each student's home and the location of each school.
The district began awarding bus contracts over the summer to handle transportation for about 4,000 special education students. General education students get bus tickets for public transportation to get to class, said the school's business administrator.
As the school year officially began, one bus vendor that agreed to take on 50 routes recanted and said it could only handle about 20, Wilson explained. She declined to name the company.
What’s more, new routes needed to be created after the vendors bid because some students either moved, were new to the district, newly classified, or had a change in school placement, Wilson said.
"We have children who move three times a school year," Wilson explained, adding that even the county would put out new bids about four times each year to keep up with all changes to routes due to a student’s situation.
The district had to find other vendors outside of the traditional bidding process as a stopgap. The process, known as quoting a route, limits the district to paying a bus vendor $19,000 for services, Wilson said. Once that $19,000 runs out, the district can no longer use that vendor unless it goes through the traditional bidding process.
The threshold for most quoted vendors ended after about two months into the school year. So the district began the bidding process in October to award new contracts around Nov. 19, school officials said.
Letters were also sent to 1,366 families informing them that new vendors were being assigned to their child’s route. One letter, viewed by TAPinto Newark, was dated Nov. 19 and explained that a new bus company would transport their child beginning Nov. 26 -- the Monday after Thanksgiving.
The vendor’s name and telephone number were provided in the letter. Parents or guardians were encouraged to reach out to the company to discuss their child’s pickup time. The onus wasn’t only on parents either, Wilson explained. The vendors were also told to contact parents or guardians on their routes.
If letters were received on the Nov. 19, that would have been just days before Thanksgiving, which was on Nov. 22. When Nov. 26 rolled around, the district and school board members started receiving calls from parents inquiring where the buses were.
Dukes-Spruill, the district’s transportation director, said it wasn’t a lack of communication from the district. About 200 letters were returned to the school, so now an inspection team needs to verify those addresses, the director added.
"We provided parents with letters, and although we did receive a report back that some parents were not in receipt of these letters, we made additional outreach to parents that reported transportation issues," Dukes-Spruill said, adding that office hours were increased to handle the influx of complaints.
Meanwhile, when the new bids were awarded in November, some vendors did not accept those routes, Dukes-Spruill told the school board. The district had to scramble yet again to find alternative vendors for quoted routes.
The district is beginning to investigate parents’ complaints about vendors, Dukes-Spruill said. Some vendors have been penalized by taking routes away, while fines were imposed on others.
Dukes-Spruill said the district canceled three routes around Dec. 7 for three large vendors that received the most complaints. The district worked with parents over the weekend to tell them about the new bus company for their child. As of Dec. 11, some complaints were still rolling in, but the vast majority of them had been "satisfied," Dukes-Spruill said.
The district is gearing up for another round of bids for bus vendors, as they expect quoted routes’ threshold to run out again. Bids will be put out in January and school officials plan to award contracts around February, Dukes-Spruill said.
The district plans to have a larger window between awarding contracts and implementing the new bus companies so that any last-minute route issues may be addressed, Dukes-Spruill said.