By Greg Phipps
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Parents and concerned residents got an opportunity to air complaints last night to the School Committee about the chaos and confusion with bus transportation during the opening two days of school last week.
Several parents spoke before the committee and expressed their displeasure with buses arriving late for pickups in the morning, kids arriving home as much as two hours late, and students being dropped off at the wrong stops. These problems, especially during last Wednesday’s first day of school, reportedly left parents frantic and children anxious and distraught.
In addition, the issues of severe bus overcrowding and drivers not knowing the correct routes were raised.
The committee received criticism for its failure to communicate and adequately inform the public about the bus schedules, routes and changes.
“It’s frustrating to have to go through this,” said parent Sue-Ellen Lamb. “We’d all like to see more detailed communication between the school and the public.”
Superintendent Susan Viccaro responded by admitting last Wednesday’s bus trouble was a “fiasco” that can’t be repeated. She added that she set up a meeting with an official from Salter Transportation, the company that operates the school buses, last Thursday morning.
“The information I received from Salter at that meeting was that over the last two years, ridership has increased by 96 students,” she said. “Overcrowded buses are a safety issue, so we’re adding an additional bus, and there will be a realignment of bus routes. Parents who are directly impacted by these changes will receive notification and will be kept informed.”
Viccaro said she should have information on bus route adjustments by tomorrow.
No representative from Salter was present at the meeting, and committee member Daniel Koen said that the company could be in breach of its contract, since it’s not providing efficient service.
“We’re not exactly happy with the service we’re paying for. We’ve put our faith in them and they’re letting us down.”
Committee member Bruce Menin said the problem was the inevitable result of the school’s determination in recent years to hold the line on adding buses but that the time has come to act.
Salter was also taken to task for the performance of its drivers.
“What’s alarming to me is that the drivers don’t know where the schools are and where stops are located,” said committee member Steven Cole. “It’s not uncommon to have transportation problems the first few days of school, and generally the problems get worked out, but the drivers not knowing their routes is troublesome to me.”
The committee agreed that communication with parents and the public needs to improve. Before yesterday’s official meeting, the committee held a 40-minute public conversation session with parents to discuss the busing problems.
Likewise, the general consensus among the public was the need for better communication and accountability from the committee, as well as involving the affected parents in solving the bus problem and not “making decisions in a vacuum.”
“It’s not fair to the parents to have to deal with Salter,” said parent Tracy Neff, who added that she was unsuccessful in her attempts to get an answer from the bus company. “Salter and the school are at fault here, and I think the superintendent’s response (an email sent out to impacted parents last week) needed to be more detailed.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by the other parents and members of the public who addressed the committee.
One parent voiced her disappointment that Mayor and Chairwoman Donna Holaday was not present last night with such an important issue on the table, remarking that the mayor “was out campaigning” instead.
Resident Ralph Orlando leveled more criticism, telling the committee he was “dismayed at the way (it) handled things here tonight,” going on to say the committee’s agenda is often very limited, and that the public should have been better informed about the pre-meeting conversation session.
“Some people arrived at 7, the official time of the meeting, and never got a chance to fully address their concerns,” he said.