Problems with Augusta school buses continuing

School began in Richmond County this week with the same problems that plagued the district last year -- late school buses, absent drivers and students who arrived home hours after dismissal.

This time around, however, the bus problem is more complicated, said school system spokesman Louis Svehla.

On Monday, the transportation department had to deal with the normal first-day glitches that come with a new school year, but it also had to adapt to the district's new method of hauling magnet school students.

"No matter what year it is, what day, what time, it's never going to be 100 percent perfect on the first day of school," Svehla said. "Anytime you have changes, you're going to have growing pains. Once it works out, these parents will be happy because their kids will be home earlier."

The district is now having magnet school pupils ride a bus from their school to whichever middle school they are zoned for so they can transfer to a different bus to ride home.

Transportation Director Jimmy Wiley told the school board in June the shuttle system will save the district $100,000 in fuel and personnel costs and will also get those pupils home faster.

On Monday, many of those pupils missed their shuttle bus at the middle schools because they didn't know which bus to transfer to. That caused hours of delays and worried parents.

"We could have done a better job with being prepared for that," Svehla said.

The problem was almost rectified by Tuesday, when school officials told all magnet students the number of their transfer buses.

The magnet schools are John S. Davidson Fine Arts, C.T. Walker Traditional and A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering.

Overall, Svehla said, Tuesday and Wednesday were free of the problems of the first afternoon.

A summary report for Tuesday and Wednesday were not available Wednesday night, however.

Davidson Principal Vicky Addison said that some of her students did not get home until after 6 p.m. Monday but that Tuesday was smoother.

"It's gotten better, and I feel it will continue to get better," Addison said. "There are always kinks to work out at the beginning of school because the drivers have new routes, they're not familiar with the students nor the addresses and all that."

Adding to the complication on Monday, seven bus drivers were absent, and other drivers had to double-up on routes.

There were three mechanical failures, forcing some students to be transferred to other buses.

Svehla also said there were instances of drivers going off route on purpose and trying to find more efficient routes on their own.

School board President Alex Howard said he has received complaints from parents and has heard criticism about the transportation system in general.

He said that the adjustment to the new routes for magnet students created problems for the system and that they were ones that could have been avoided in the future.

"We were not prepared," Howard said. "I think they had the routes worked out, but I don't think they ran any test systems. I don't think they practiced it enough."

Communication was also an issue. Richmond County banned cellphones this year from school campuses and buses. Students were not able to notify parents that their buses were late, leaving families worried and wondering where their children were.

"We did not do a good job of tying to reach out to parents and inform them that the bus is going to be late," Howard said.

Although school officials have said the first-week problems will be resolved quickly, it is still a reminder of the issues experienced last year.

The new system of shuttling magnet students was created because they traditionally had to wait until drivers were done carrying all other students in the district before they could be picked up.

That meant buses would roll into the magnet schools about 5 p.m.

But the problems this week might be a continuation of what the system had to deal with last year, said school board member Jack Padgett Jr.

"We spend more time on transportation issues in a lot of instances than we do on education issues, and that's really the wrong way to do things," he said.

Padgett said he has considered suggesting the school district convert to a privatized bus system. The city recently contracted with a private company, Mobility Transit, to run Augusta Public Transit.

"I've always been a proponent that the private sector in a lot of instances can do a better job," Padgett said. "I'll very closely follow the city system and see how that works."

Padgett said private companies would have more authority to discipline drivers who show up late or not at all, which was a recurring problem last year.

"If it continues to the level it was for the first day, we would have to make some changes," Padgett said.

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