School bus routes draw complaints

Richmond County school bus riders sitting three to a seat and standing in aisles might be the lucky ones.

Others have watched their bus pass them by, leaving them to wait by a curb for 30 minutes so the driver can unload at the school, then come back for them, a parent and transportation council member reported Wednesday.

Students waiting for bus 9825 have stood in the rain and arrived at school so late they missed breakfast, said Rita Washington, who has a senior and a sophomore at Hephzibah High School. It's not safe for children to wait outside that long, and when the bus returns for a second route, it carries only about a dozen students, wasting costly fuel, she said.

Making things worse, bus driver Sallie Thomas said that while students wait outside, standby drivers sit idle in break rooms, their buses parked.

Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Thomas spoke out during a monthly meeting of Richmond County schools' Transportation Council, a 14-member panel of parents, school bus drivers, Transportation Department heads, administrators and school board members. The council was formed as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit between the drivers union and the school board and met for the first time in January.

School officials downplayed their complaints, saying an automated computer program called Edulog, coupled with global positioning systems, will soon have bus routes running much smoother. Council Chairman and Executive Director of Special Schools and Programs James Thompson, who tried in earnest to wrap up the meeting within an hour, stopped Mrs. Washington mid-spiel, saying she should tell parents to "please bear with us."

"We have a plan in place, shortly, and it's just going to take a little time to work it out," Mr. Thompson said.

But while Mr. Thompson spoke of a short wait, Transportation Director Michael Shinn said outside the meeting that he couldn't place a time frame on when the system will be fully operational. Software must be installed, and drivers need training, both of which are ongoing, he said.

"A program like this, you don't just say, 'Here it is,' " Mr. Shinn said.

The new system will integrate school records to let bus drivers know how many students they're picking up, allowing for adjustments if a route has more children than seats, Mr. Shinn said. The department will be able to electronically track buses' progress, pinpointing their location on a route and the times they hit specific stops.

Why the system isn't already in place is unclear.

According to a recent audit by MGT of America, Richmond County bought Edulog eight years ago, but without support from the technology department to install programs and train staff, it couldn't be used. In 2005 the school board budgeted $1,500 for training and $4,750 for an annual licensing contract fee, then budgeted money for the licensing fee again in 2006, but none of the money was spent.

Asked about the MGT report, Mr. Thompson said he'd check into it and call back, but he hadn't done so by day's end. Schools spokesman Louis Svehla said he couldn't say Wednesday how much the program cost or why it hasn't been used, but he planned to meet with financial and transportation officials today.

Mr. Shinn said Richmond County had an old version of Edulog before, and an updated version obtained at the urging of Superintendent Dana Bedden, will allow for GIS mapping. He attributed overcrowding problems in Hephzibah to students moving during the summer, beefing up rider numbers on certain routes.

"You don't really know where it stands until school starts," he said.

Assistant Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley told Mrs. Washington such glitches are typical during the first weeks of a school year. "History has led us to believe that after Labor Day, everything balances out," he said.

Mrs. Washington disputed that after the meeting, saying overcrowded buses have been a problem for three years.

"The way I got to be on this council is because I was on the phone almost every day with the Transportation Department," she said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.