SPARTA, NJ- The first day of school was an unwanted adventure for a bus load of Alpine students. Several parents came to the board of education meeting to express concern and dissatisfaction about that experience and others as well as the response of the district.
“Transportation needs immediate attention,” one parent said as she recounted the first day of school.
She explained a bus was late and lost. A parent flagged the bus down and got on board. The bus driver said “I’m sorry I never drove a bus before today.” The parent, looking at the name tags worn by the young children, found out where they were supposed to go and gave the driver directions.
“It was a right and a right,” a parent said. But that was not enough to get the students to the correct bus stop.
“It was 45 minutes later and they still weren’t home,” she said.
After “making an illegal K turn on West Mountain, he tried to make a left turn but couldn’t make it so he started backing up” another parent flagged the driver and guided him to the bus stop.
One parent said it was 6 p.m. before the children got home. Making matters worse, it was a thunderstorm and the children on the bus were Kindergarten, first and second grade students.
“They were crying and very upset,” one parent said. “It was not acceptable. It was scary.”
Parent Nicky Etro said the same driver had not shown up in the morning. She was dismayed that the school or transportation department had not gotten in touch with the bus company to tell them there was a problem with that driver.
“The five, six and seven year old children had to tell a parent who got on the bus, where they lived,” Etro said.
Superintendent Dr. Michael Rossi said the driver had practiced the route and even drove it in his car the weekend before school started.
“He couldn’t have,” a parent said. He had told the woman who got on the bus that it was his first time driving. The drive said he was “going to be trained the next day.”
Continuing the topic of transportation, a middle school parent said bus route 05 was consistently late leaving them to “stand outside for 20 to 40 minutes waiting for the bus.”
“He’s a new driver and should have an aid,” she said. “We’re not a priority. How do we get more of our own buses.”
Rossi agreed “Sparta employees are the most reliable.”
Board President Kelly McEvoy said, “It’s a big step and we have to look into it. It’s a topic that’s been talked about.”
The middle school parent said she had spoken to principal Michael Gregory. He had found that the bus driver was from First Student.
He said they had been “working with First Student to get drivers to a point where you all feel comfortable.”
Charter school parent Dana Gleason said “bussing is atrocious.” She asked what the district is going to do to “about the lines of communication.”
“Dr. Rossi, you never responded to my email,” Gleason said handing a packet of printed emails to the board members.
Rossi said, “Looking at the responses to email, they may not come from me. There are dozens of messages coming from transportation.”
“When will we find out what the plan is to be safe for the remaining nine months,” Gleason said.
“Our contracted bus companies are the ones who have to make the plan,” Rossi said.
McEvoy said the item will be added to the Finance and Ops Committee agenda.
“I have full confidence our administrators are handling things to the best of their ability,” Mc Evoy said.
In an interview after the meeting, Rossi said, “By all accounts some first day experiences were harrowing. It is always challenging at the beginning of a school year. If you feel your child isn’t safe that’s good enough for me.”
Rossi said, “The punctuality of the routes has improved.” He said the day after the meeting he went to Alpine Elementary school and talked with the principal. Rossi said, “Joe Leone told him the buses are more punctual.”
Rossi confirmed the driver discussed at the meeting was still driving. “By all accounts he is a well liked individual. Others in the room [at the board of education meeting] that didn’t speak, say they’re comfortable.”
They are getting data on the real times of pickup according to Rossi.
“Part of the safety concern is that they were lost,” Rossi said. “Now that we know the routes are fairly punctual we can look at safety issues. The drivers can check on the students at stops and can check the cameras.”
Rossi said they are looking at the practicality of putting an aid on every bus as has been suggested. Because the “issues are by and large with contracted routes, we would feel more confident if we had 35 more busses and our own drivers. We are looking at it.”
The superintendent indicated they were looking at grants for new buses. He also reiterated the comments made at the board meeting about drivers facing increasing requirements and decreasing benefits.
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