Loudoun County’s public school system has logged 1,385 grievances about bus service since the first day of school.
That includes 819 general questions or concerns, 274 requests for new bus stops, 202 reports of early or late buses, 49 driver complaints, 17 driver infractions, and 24 complaints about students’ walking conditions. They’ve also received eight compliments.
“Just know that this is constantly a work in progress, and we’re knocking these out as quickly as we can,” Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Kevin Lewis said.
He and Transportation Director Michael Brown presented the stats Wednesday morning to School Board members who sit on the Student Support and Services Committee. The meeting comes on the 12th day of the school year, a nearly two week stretch that has been laden with complaints from parents, students and drivers about the school bus system that many say is worse than it’s ever been.
After a bumpy start to last school year because of a severe bus driver shortage, school system leaders had said this year would be better. They worked with outside consultant Edulog Logistics Inc. and adopted a new software system to consolidate bus routes, reduce lengthy rides, maximize bus space, and reduce the number of drivers needed—all with the goal of improving the level of service to Loudoun students.
Lewis reiterated those goals to School Board members who sit on the committee, Debbie Rose (Algonkian) and Tom Marshall (Leesburg), as well as the eight or so parents who attended this morning’s committee meeting. He said, on the plus side, he hears less about long bus rides, but he acknowledged there is more work to be done.
Four parents delivered their complaints in person at Wednesday’s 9 a.m. meeting. More are expected to take to the mic at Tuesday’s full board meeting, that is at 6:30 p.m., a more convenient time for families.
Neighbors Lynn Kessler and Michael Croll raised concerns about their children having to walk nearly 1 mile to their bus stop at the end of MacIntosh Place near Leesburg. The road is windy and has no sidewalks or streetlights.
Kessler said in her line of work as a geologist it would be an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation to require workers to walk along that road, let alone a child. She and her neighbors are requesting one stop on their road. “We’re not asking for door to door service; I thought that was ridiculous. But we’re just asking for a reasonable accommodation for safety,” she said.
Croll added during his comments, “We’re penny wise and pound foolish, and we’re putting the safety of our children at risk.”
Parents also protested the stops along Shelburne Glebe Road, a windy gravel road in western Loudoun with high embankments on either side. The stop requires students to walk along that road in the early morning hours and wait for the bus. After the Shelburne Glebe families alerted Transportation Department staff of their concerns last year and got no traction, they appealed the decision to the School Board. A second stop was put in place at the Philomont Community Center as an alternative.
But Joel Johnson, the father of a first-grader, noted that that stop is a seven-minute drive from his house. “That’s not a viable alternative,” he said. “What about families who have two working parents?”
The Transportation Department is asking parents to chip in more, Lewis noted later in the meeting. “There’s not going to be an easy way to make everyone feel comfortable. Parents who aren’t comfortable about a certain stop, we’ve encouraged them to walk with their students.”
Addressing the parents in the room, Rose took issue with people accusing school leaders of favoring saving money over student safety. The newly adopted plan to consolidate bus stops and fit more students on a bus is estimated to save the division between $1.5 million and $2.9 million annually. But Rose, who chairs the Student Support and Services Committee, stressed that’s not the priority. “I personally take great offense to that—that we put efficiency over safety. Absolutely not.”
Lewis assured the parents that things will get better. He said it takes about 30 days at the start of each school year to pinpoint which students are riding the bus and plan stops and runs accordingly. All stops, runs, and routes are reviewed and tweaked every year, he added, as students graduate, move away or move in.
“That’s some 50,000 students who are moving around and that’s not all set until the first 30 days of the school year,” he said, noting that an additional 1,663 new students have enrolled in local public schools just since the first day of school Aug. 24. “That is a moving target every single day.”
Rose and Marshall commended Lewis and Brown for their work to address the problem, complaint by complaint.
“I know you guys are working hard,” Rose said. “I had a couple complaints—we do every year at the start of the school year. Once I forwarded it on to you and asked them to be put it in the system, I didn’t hear about it again. To that extent, that’s good, great, awesome.”
Marshall added, “I think you’re doing an amazing job with such a moving target. It’s mind boggling that you can handle that.”
He asked Lewis when the last of the outstanding concerns and complaints will be addressed.
“We see it level out in about 30 days as students get into their routines,” Lewis noted. “It will certainly be drastically minimized but I don’t know if all will be resolved.”
“I doubt it, looking at that,” Marshall said, referring to the hundreds of complaints parents have logged.
Of the 1,385 grievances that have been made through the Transportation Department’s “concern registry,” 739 have been addressed. That does not necessarily mean a change has been made, but that department staff has looked into it and “closed out” that concern.
The full School Board is expected to address transportation concerns at its meeting Tuesday. School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) has said he plans to ask the board to reverse a vote they took earlier this year to remove parents’ ability to formally appeal a transportation decision to the full board. Reinstating the appeal option “will provide an opportunity to review concerns carefully. This is especially true when it comes to matters related to safety,” he said.
Rose, for one, is not in favor of reestablishing the appeal option. She said parents have a route to appeal a transportation decision through the Transportation Department’s “concern registry.”
“Staff has indicated that they are capable of making changes to bus stops and routes whenever there is a safety concern,” she said. When School Board members can make exceptions to division policy to favor individual constituents, bus service becomes inconsistent and unfair, she added. “We are tasked with making public policy, not personal policy.”