First Student team answers tough questions at special Rome BOE meeting

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“We’ve got to fix it. If it takes hiring four times as many people, then we’ll hire four times as many people. But, we’ve got to fix it.”

So committed Brian Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of the New York/New Jersey region for First Student — the company awarded the Rome school district’s transportation contract this past spring — to the Rome Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools in a special meeting convened on Monday evening.

The special meeting was initially called to discuss the use of time-locked federal COVID funding, but after a first week of school laced with excessively long bus rides, excessively late pick-ups and even some no-shows that left middle school students walking home, a presentation by First Student to the Board of Education originally scheduled for the regular meeting on Thursday was moved onto Monday’s agenda, and then it was moved to the first order of business.

Mike Olsen, Central New York area manager, and Marc Bookman, Rome location manager, joined Fitzgerald on behalf of First Student to address their own “first week of school” and an itinerary of issues that had made for a challenging first impression on the Rome school community, particularly students and families who had borne the brunt. 

Issues so acute they made the evening news in Rome including elementary students waiting in excess of three hours for their bus pickup to go home on the first day of school, forcing school staff to wait with the students while frantically trying to get in touch with all of their families to advise of the delay. Where concerns had been raised before the first day of school about scheduled pick-ups as early as 5:47 a.m. and bus rides home intended to be almost one and a half hours, students and families reported rides home between two and three hours, some in buses with no air conditioning where drivers did not permit students to open bus windows or drink water. Parents of middle school students reported buses that simply never came during the first days of the school year, where students who did not have family members available to pick them up simply walked home. 

The biggest issue, as emphasized by Board Vice President, Tanya Davis, was communication. First Student has touted an app that parents can download on their devices that allows them to track their child’s bus en route and sends them automated messages in real time to advise of delays or other issues. But that app was not yet available per the district website, so Rome families — not knowing where their children were — called the phone numbers provided for First Student and were unable to reach anyone. Messages to both First Student and even district personal were not returned.

Fitzgerald noted, “It’s been a heck of a four months for us.”

Fitzgerald lamented driver shortages impacting all districts, including First Student’s CNY region, calling out Buffalo and Syracuse. He shared their recruiting efforts, including sign on bonuses, paid CDL training and marketing the opportunities via television, radio, billboards et al and told the “room” he was open to all suggestions. But he was pressed about those conditions existing last spring when First Student won the Rome business from Birnie Bus, who had serviced the district for about 40 years.

“When you presented to the Board, you said this wouldn’t happen with First Student,” said Larry Posselt, a former Rome Board of Education member who served during the consideration of proposals for the contract, and who was in attendance with his daughter, a Rome student who had been impacted by the First Student failures. “You said this wouldn’t happen because you had a SWAT team of 50 drivers to keep this from happening – WHAT HAPPENED?”

Mike Olsen replied bluntly, “Everyone went back to school?”

The response evoked a pause, before Fitzgerald intervened, “Those 50 drivers had to be absorbed everywhere; Rochester, Syracuse...”

“No offense,” Posselt interjected, “But we only care about Rome.”

“We knew that the pandemic hurt the shortage but not how it would play out,” expounded Olsen. “The ‘witching hour’ is the summer — you’ve been off and now you come back — you don’t know what the drop off is going to be and it was way worse than we thought it would be.”

Olsen embarked on a thorough and transparent update, broken down into six areas that he was “sure you’d want to hear about;” including srivers, routes, fleet, service execution and communication, parent app and facilities.

Olsen shared that their goal was to be at 130% with drivers, to allow for vacations, sick time and attrition. Their target for Rome is 72 drivers. They currently have 57 assigned to the district. He shared that three drivers with active CDLs are in training now and they are supporting three more candidates in getting their CDL certification, which can take two to three weeks. 

When asked about the New York Governor’s new mandates to address the bus driver shortages state wide, which included converting National Guard to the task, Olsen warned that it was “tricky.” The process would include identifying those who had the right qualifications and then putting them through training; again, a two to three week process, so not an immediate fix.

As for Staley, buses sufficient had already been designated to the school for 500 students. That was an issue of re-routing. The challenge was the 170 Staley “walkers.”

Routing inspired questions and comments about the excessively long rides, as scheduled, about and beyond the further protracted rides home during the first week. 

“A huge question across the board — that was a First Student selling point — is the amount of time kids are on the bus,” said Davis. “We have kids that are putting on a longer day than I do at work from getting on the bus to getting off.” 

Davis reminded the First Student team that Birnie bus honored an informal commitment that no one-way ride would exceed 55 minutes. 

Posselt pressed that point to ask First Student reps, when you they are fully staffed and what needs fixing is fixes, would they make that same commitment.

“100% yes,” said Olsen, “under an hour.”

When First Student revealed that they could not accommodate some of the door-to-door and special pick-ups due to the size of the buses, Andy Thompson, Director of Transportation for the Rome District, confirmed that the district did that by design, knowing the driver shortage was persisting.

“This was probably the best bad decision we ever made,” said Thompson.

The topic ended with praise from board members who were also parents of district students for the First Student drivers, who through the difficult roll-out had prioritized the students to the best of their ability.

But in the near term, while First Student works toward full staffing of drivers, the longer rides will be a sacrifice that students will have to make.

“It’s not healthy for our kids and super stressful for our parents,” concluded Davis.

Olsen buttoned out of drivers and routes and into fleet to confirm that they more than enough bus monitors — he wished some would consider training to drive — and a full fleet of buses. They were simply awaiting the completion of equipping all vehicles with promised technology, including a GPS tracking system, cameras that he assured would capture vehicles that failed to stop as required by law, and advanced data tracking systems that timed stops, hard brakes, speed and sudden escalation. He confirmed this was promised to be up and running by November and expected it would be.

Communication, as Davis had imparted, was introduced as by far the biggest concern communicated to Board members by parents. The First Student team was most humble on the subject. They owned accountability for insufficient staffing at the Rome location to answer calls and promised it was being addressed, including the hiring of 30 temporary staff to start as soon as possible and that — if needed — they would hire more. 

The issue of the First Student app reared again, where while the First Student team reminded of its impressive capabilities, currently only 174 families had downloaded it. There are approximately 4,000 students in the Rome district. It is unclear how those families accessed it, as — if you log on to the district website today — a pop-up ALERT advises: “FIRSTVIEW (Bus Tracking System) UNDER CONSTRUCTION Attn. RCSD Families: There have been a number of concerns with the FirstView (bus tracking system). As soon as these issues are resolved with First Student, the RCSD will communicate with families so they can start using the app.In the meantime, if you would like to start learning about FirstView, visit: https://drive.google.com/.../1qTL266XSDMTPp2tYoWhQcF.../view”

There were no hard answers given regarding this delay, where the absence of the widespread download of an available app seemed to cause the communication breakdown during week one.

Regarding facilities, Marc Bookman, the Rome area manager, confirmed that their barn is up and running. Staley has been put to good use as a ‘terminal’ for some of the fleet. 

Fitzgerald offered specifics, adding that it would about another 60 days while they transitioned from some old fleet to the newer fleet. He did not offer why.

“We are not where we want to be,” owned Fitzgerald. “We got great feedback tonight and great feedback coming in from families ... and we’ll be working on it. We recognize it . We appreciate your feedback and your patience and your time.”

Davis added more of a statement for the Rome school community

“We scrutinized this decision — it was not an easy decision,” said Davis. “We wanted to make the right decision for every child.”

What she reminded was out of theirs, and First Student’s control was not expecting to still be dealing with COVID issues, the sudden Staley closure and the national driver shortage.

“When we looked at this in March/April of last year, we thought we were looking at a normal year,” said Davis. “Now, I don’t know if we’ll ever have a normal year again.”

Board President, John Nash thanked the First Student team and commended them for a professional presentation under difficult circumstances.

“They answered every question,” said Nash, “and if they didn’t have an answer, they promised they’d get one.”

In a fitting close, Bookman had the last word.

“We are really ready to work with the district.”

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