Sep. 1—Howard County school board member Robyn Scates called out new bus contractor Zum Services on Thursday for not doing the job that the school system has paid them millions of dollars to do.
"The board voted on a contractor, agreed with it, and the contractor didn't do their job," Scates said during a Board of Education meeting. "[Superintendent Michael] Martirano and his team should not have to tell the contractor, who we are paying millions of dollars, 'You need to practice routes.'"
General counsel J. Stephen Cowles advised the Board of Education that the next steps should be discussed in private.
"Really, the discussion is what steps does the board want to take and that's really a closed session matter of legal advice ... because I don't want us to limit the remedy discussion," Cowles said.
During the public forum portion of the meeting, several parents, including Corinne Happel, leader of a social media group called Neighbors for Buses, voiced concerns about the impact transportation issues are having on the 2,400 students whose bus routes were temporarily eliminated this week due to Zum's driver shortages.
"Children with access to the least resources are disproportionately impacted by school bus loss," Happel said. "This is not OK."
Route cancellations have affected families at 34 elementary, middle and high schools across 54 runs each morning and afternoon. The routes were canceled on the second day of school, Tuesday, and no estimate has been given for their restoration by Zum or Howard County Public School System officials.
Nearly 75% of the discontinued routes affect Howard schools with the highest needs, school board member Jennifer Mallo said, and 17 of the routes provided transportation for students in Columbia.
HCPSS Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui said Thursday that the canceled routes were chosen to minimize and spread the impact across multiple schools. The routes may be adjusted if it is determined that any one school is disproportionately impacted, he added.
Martirano said double-backs, when a bus picks up and drops off one group of students before going back to transport another and which were once used as an effective means of solving busing issues, could no longer be done, because transportation tiers were compressed when the board decided to change school start times.
"We have taken out all of that flexibility to provide a more efficient system," Martirano said, "which in hindsight now is having challenges and has led to the temporary — and I do say temporary — suspension of several bus routes."
Some improvements with late buses
The issue of late buses should be remedied within the first several weeks of school, Martirano said Thursday.
On Tuesday about 340 routes were late, 200 routes were late on Wednesday, and 200 late routes on Thursday were likely impacted in part by a fatal traffic incident on Route 32, Martirano said.
"Two hundred late buses is far from acceptable," he said. "I follow the data closely and it is trending in a positive direction. Nothing that we are proud of at this moment."
Despite setbacks, 95% of students attended classes Monday and Howard's attendance rate was 96% on Tuesday, Martirano said, which is above last year's annual average of 93.5%. Howard's attendance rate was 97% at this time last year, but even a 2 two percentage point dip in attendance represents more than 1,000 students absent.
Absences will be excused and Chief Academic Officer Bill Barnes said teachers at all levels are working to mitigate any potential learning loss. Online assignments are available on Canvas, which he said can serve as a form of asynchronous, or virtual, instruction for the system's older students.
Out-of-state Zum drivers leaving
Some of the 70 Zum bus drivers flown in from Seattle and Spokane, Washington, to address the contractor's staffing shortage, must return to drive buses in their home districts at the end of this week, Martirano said.
The superintendent said he met with Zum on Thursday and the company indicated it is on track to be ready next week to fill the vacancies left by temporary drivers with new hires and drivers from other districts.
Martirano said he has reached out to other current Howard bus contractors, "to assess their ability to fulfill additional routes so that we can restore the currently suspended routes."
One local bus contractor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the school system, said the school system reached out with a request for help in covering the routes, but did not provide compensation information. The contractor said he requires more details before agreeing to anything.
School board motion for audit fails
During Thursday's meeting, Mallo made a motion for the school board to direct Martirano to perform a comprehensive review and root cause analysis of this school year's transportation issues by experts from outside the school system, with results presented in the first quarter of 2024.
The motion failed with four votes in favor (Antonia Watts, Yun Lu, Jolene Mosley and Mallo); one opposed (Linfeng Chen); and three board members abstaining (Scates, Jacky McCoy and student representative Lamia Ayaz).
"We need to examine the experience this year to make certain it's never repeated," Mallo said, "and I support us bringing in external experts in assisting in this review, as it needs to be comprehensive."
Scates wondered why HCPSS wouldn't use its Audit Committee to review the failure and bring in outside experts as needed. An external audit would be expensive for the school system, she said, when the problem might be easily determined to be a contractor not doing their job.
"I don't think it's something that means that we have to do this big study and we have to spend additional money that we don't have," Scates said.
Mallo argued that the school system should not be charged with auditing itself.
"I don't believe that we should be investigating ourselves, effectively, or looking into ourselves," Mallo said. "We don't know that's where the problem lies. I think the magnitude of failures along the way — we do not yet know where those lie and how they can be addressed."
The motion was amended by McCoy to explicitly include communication failures, and Ayaz agreed that communication was an issue.
"We live in an era of incredible technology and instantaneous information transfer," Ayaz said. "We cannot leave students in the dark about something as important as how they're getting to and from school. Moving forward, I strongly recommend that we reevaluate our channels of communication in addition to being better prepared for our busing services. We must find a better way of pushing out information and notifications to our students, especially for matters as urgent as bus safety."
Martirano had announced his intention to order an external audit of the HCPSS student transportation office on Wednesday.
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