News: Taken for a Ride

Does Cincinnati Public Schools neglect charter students' bus safety?

Scott Beseler

Frequently changed routes and incidents of kindergartners being left at the wrong bus stops have led some parents to pull their children out of VLT Academy, according to Superintendent Valerie Lee.

It's the phone call nobody wants: Someone is missing. She was supposed to be home by... It happened Feb. 2 to Terri Mackey while at work. Sometime after 5:30 p.m. the babysitter called to say Mackey's 6-year-old daughter's school bus never arrived. Worse, it was the second time in as many months her daughter was missing after she was supposed to be dropped off by her bus driver.

Mackey called First Student Inc., the bus company serving Value, Learning and Teaching (VLT) Academy, the charter school where her daughter attends kindergarten. The bus company didn't answer the phone, and the school had no idea what was going on. Mackey left work before her 8 p.m. shift ended to try to find her daughter.

The bus finally pulled up at 5:45 p.m. Mackey's daughter arrived with an injury to her head.

"Children were fighting on the bus, and in this altercation my child was hurt to the point where they called the police and called the ambulance to have these children checked out," Mackey says. "No one called me nor the babysitter to say, 'There's a problem where this bus is being held up because a situation happened.' "

First Student officials didn't respond to a request for an interview.

Mackey informed the bus company that her child would no longer take the bus and why. To date, she hasn't received an explanation from the bus company and isn't aware of any investigation of the fighting incident.

Twice the limit
Safety concerns about the bus service for VLT began six months earlier, on the first day of school. Anywhere from 88 to 134 students were assigned to a single bus, according to James Lee, the school's project manager for transportation.

"The typical number ... is supposed to be two students per seat, which totals, if you go with the standard buses ... 68 students, if they're smaller children," he says. "If they're larger children, over fourth or fifth grade, they're supposed to go down to 48.

"So when the bus came up their very first day ... we had children that were in a dangerous situation. They were standing up on the bus because they didn't have anywhere to sit down. And they were late. School starts at 9 o'clock, and the buses didn't get there until 9:45 to 11 o'clock."

Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) handles bus routes, stops, pick-up and drop-off times and assignment of students to each bus. CPS schedules 414 routes transporting 36,000 students to more than 150 public, private and charter schools each day.

"We called the First Student and complained to them," Lee says. "(They) looked at the routing slips along with the pick-up times. Sure enough, that's how Cincinnati Public had given the first assignment to pick the kids up."

After assessments by First Student and CPS, the number of buses assigned to VLT increased from four to seven. Problems have continued throughout the year: Buses didn't arrive for morning to pick-ups or were anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours late, leaving children standing in the cold. Late buses caused truancy issues. Bus drivers refused to talk to parents, and drivers wouldn't allow children on buses if their names weren't on routing sheets, even on routes they took every day.

Mackey says all of that made it impossible to teach her child safety.

"They changed the drivers and bus numbers every few weeks," she says. "With her being a kindergartener, it was very difficult trying to teach her, 'Your bus number is 636, the bus driver's name is so-and-so.' I'm at the bus stop every morning, so I was able to see they're different drivers, and what they kept telling me was, 'Well, we don't have anybody permanent to the route.' "

Finally on Jan. 10, VLT hosted a meeting with parents, CPS officials and representatives of First Student. Phyllis Brown, VLT's attorney, says parents were articulate in explaining the problems.

"The person from First Student apologized for the bad service and also for the conduct of some of the bus drivers who were insubordinate toward parents, who wouldn't speak to parents and so forth," Brown says. "His primary concern was to make things better for the students of VLT Academy in particular."

A transcript of the meeting shows CPS made no commitment to address parent concerns but explained the process of busing in detail.

Woody Fitzmaurice, director of pupil transportation for CPS, explained that the state provides school enrollment information to CPS, from which the district builds lists of students at each school. Information about charter school students gets backlogged "maybe another day," Fitzmaurice said, blaming the state for the delay.

Is it deliberate?
One day in December, after Mackey's bus stop changed at her request, her daughter was put on the wrong bus after school. By law a bus driver can't let an unattended kindergartener off a bus unless a responsible adult is at the bus stop. Even the 6-year-old knew that.

"She told the bus driver, 'I'm a kindergartener. My mother's at work. If there's nobody here, I'm not to get off the bus.' He let her get off the bus anyway," Mackey says. "She wandered around in our community for over an hour, when her father found her sitting on the neighbor's porch."

The CPS public relations office didn't respond to questions regarding transportation and safety issues raised by VLT and parents.

In a letter of complaint to Todd Hanes, executive director of the Office of Community Schools, which oversees the charter school program for the state, Brown explains the net effect of so many transportation problems.

"The result of CPS's failure to provide adequate transportation, for which CPS receives state funds, has been a precipitous drop in VLT enrollment," Brown wrote. "Parents are tired of the changes and the inability of CPS to schedule their children to arrive at school and return home in a timely manner.

"At this point we conclude that CPS's failures are more than incompetence. Rather, we believe CPS is seeking to stop its loss of students to charter schools by denying parts of school choice and has targeted larger, high-performing charter schools, like VLT."

Valerie Lee, superintendent of VLT, says the transportation problems have taken their toll on her school.

"I had a parent just break down and cry," Lee says. "She said, 'I don't want my child to go back to that school, but they're not leaving me any options. They won't pick them up.' We've lost 210 students."

J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Office of Community Schools, declined to comment.

"We're dealing with the governor announcing a $50 billion budget, which we're trying to analyze, and it involves a moratorium on some charter school issues," he said. "We're not going to be able to comment. Call me in the future and we'll work with you."

Brown says she wonders if CPS is using transportation to force kids out of charter schools and back into public schools.

"I do know that Cincinnati Public Schools are very concerned about the drop in their student population," she says, "and I am hopeful that they are not using the bus service, which we are required by law to get from the public school district, as a mean of improving their population of students at the expense of charter schools."

Charter schools offer parents a choice. But some have removed their kids because transportation problems interfere with their jobs, Brown says. After the Feb. 2 incident, Mackey quit her job and took a lower paying position to drive her daughter to school in the morning. She says VLT has helped her build a network of family, friends and other parents to get her daughter home in the afternoon. ©

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