By Michele Justic
For many Lawrence District residents, the idyllic feeling of watching one’s children leaving for school on a bright, yellow school bus has been eclipsed by driver shortages, traffic nightmares, and poor communication. WhatsApp groups and casual bus stop conversations often feature these types of tidbits: “The driver was 20 minutes late today.” “Sub today; he doesn’t know the stops.”
The complaints reached epic proportions on the Facebook group Lawrence District 15 Residents. Danielle Wasserman Well’s post, “Wondering how many people are being affected by the completely ridiculous school busing situation with buses showing up extremely late or not at all (i.e., receiving a school email while you are still at work that the bus never showed up and your child is stranded at school) … trying to brainstorm best ways to establish some accountability from the bus company because there doesn’t seem to be any and it is unfair to both the parents and children,” elicited 180 comments in an eight-hour period and several offshoot posts attracted critics as well.
Ezzie Schaff complained, “I have had to leave work in the city at 2 p.m. all week to pick up my kids.” He pointed out the lack of response from the school board, but since then has spoken with transportation officials and is satisfied with the response.
Goldie Young has a long history of transportation trouble. “My son travels to Manhattan: he is first one on, last one off: 6 hours on the bus, 7 hours in school. This is all because they combined District 14 and 15 to put them on the same route, and District 14 is helping their parents get the better bus route … They don’t respond to emails or phone calls … My child suffers from severe special needs, and they don’t care, and leave him on a bus for six hours to save money.”
Benjamin Lipsky wrote, “My issues were (1) although I had a bus card with a time stop on it, the bus driver turned the opposite direction the first two days. On the third day, I went to the previous stop to show him my card, and he said he didn’t have him on the route. Once I showed him the correct stop, it was fine. (2) I called the company, and the district — I got an answering service during regular business hours; they said I had to call the school. (3) School can’t do anything about it. (4) District says issue is widespread; no one wants to drive buses in the area. As a business, if you don’t have enough employees to do the work that is needed, then you need to hire more. If no one wants to work for what you are paying, then you need to pay more to attract talent. (5) If the company cannot handle the load, they need to outsource to other companies that can. (6) The fact is that the district or the company doesn’t communicate the problems and the plans to solve those problems to the parents. We are left guessing if the bus will come each day. We are told there is no driver on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (by the school), so we might as well get into a carpool for those days. If the district or the bus company knew they didn’t have a driver, it was incumbent on them to get one or at least communicate that issue to the parents before school started.”
Jeremy Feder, assistant superintendent for business and operations, explained the multifaceted problems that hold district buses back, and shared the improvements he has instituted and plans for the future.
- The district makes sure to send out the bus cards by the second week in August and urges all parents to check their bus cards and report any problems or changes. Many do not do that and wait until the last minute. In addition, dozens of families register for busing at the last minute due to a move or school changes. Given all of these changes, it takes a week or two to adjust and to improve upon the routes.
- The district was not informed in advance of the recent roadwork on Broadway, which caused hours of delays.
- There is a huge driver shortage. The district sometimes combines routes to use drivers as best as possible. Generally, each driver drives three routes in the morning and three routes in the afternoon, which is unheard of at other bus companies and makes it problematic to retain bus companies. District 15 buses over 6,000 children to 200 schools in Nassau County and New York City, while contending with a massive bus driver shortage.
Other issues that hold back routes include school delays, checking for sleeping children, making sure younger children cross the street safely, etc. With all this in mind, Feder insists they still try to accommodate as many needs as possible when assigning bus stops and times. They have also selected key point people at each school to mainstream communications. He points to thank you emails received from schools as a sign that matters are improving. For example, Yeshiva of South Shore Menahel Avraham Robinson wrote, “The buses arrived today in a timely fashion for the 4:10 p.m. dismissal. Thank you for all your hard work in making this happen and especially for your personal involvement in our yeshiva.”
Independent Coach, the Inwood-based company that Lawrence District has contracted with for many years, posted on their Facebook page a testament to the hurdles a driver faces: “On a daily basis, drivers are met with many challenges — one of which is the traffic in the area which only builds as the day moves on. Bumper-to-bumper traffic in the a.m. rush hour, cars parked on both sides of the road, allowing only one lane of traffic in either direction, motorists failing to give a bus the right of way to cross intersections. The task of safely boarding, transporting, and seeing children are left at bus stops when all too often no one is there to greet the children to remove them from buses in the afternoon; some are 6–10 years old. School bus transportation is a team effort. Parents and motorists can help in our overpopulated suburban community . . . to assist the bus drivers in doing their job safely and effectively. We at Independent Coach will continue to provide safe and effective transportation for all our riders to the best of our ability.”
According to the New York State Department of Education, some local complaints play out year-after-year and are rooted in the NYS Education Laws. Pupils who live less than two miles from an elementary school (K–8) or less than three miles from a secondary school (9–12) are not eligible for transportation.
Though parents may think their stop is “dangerous” and put in a stop change to that effect, the law only specifically mentions, “bus stops should not be located near known hazards. Possible hazards that should be avoided include cliffs, rivers, railroads, intersections, and high speed highways.”
Finally, many parents feel their children are on the bus too long, yet the law does not specify a maximum length of time that a pupil may be expected to spend riding on a school bus. The Commissioner of Education has held that numerous factors — such as age of the pupil, distance between home and school, safety, efficiency, cost, available buses, the number of schools on a particular trip, and the opening and closing times of schools — may be considered in determining whether the amount of time is reasonable.
Many districts attempt to limit the time en route to one hour, but there are situations where it is not possible to complete the trip in that time. Districts are expected to provide economical and efficient transportation, and therefore, will often transport to more than one school in a single trip. Appeals to the Commissioner of Education have concluded that a trip of 1½ hours, in particular situations, was not unreasonable.
When asked if any proposed changes to these laws have been considered, State Senator Todd Kaminsky responded, “I am continuing to work with individual school districts to ensure that all children are receiving appropriate and safe transportation.”
Addressing busing woes, School Board Member Heshy Blachorsky confirmed, “The district was not prepared for the construction on Broadway and was not notified of it. There is a tremendous amount of congestion in the neighborhood. With the construction taking place on 878 and Rockaway Turnpike having a ripple effect on most of the major arteries in the Five Towns, the Broadway project has made driving locally, especially during rush hour, virtually impossible — and we aren’t driving small sedans. We are operating large school buses. Try navigating a school bus through this traffic. We have around 300 runs every morning and afternoon.”
“Most of the ‘issues’ were typical challenges we face in the beginning of every school year—and they normally work themselves out by week three,” Blachorsky said. “We are making numerous changes to routes and adding stops as changes continue to pour in. We all have to be patient. I urge everyone to email changes and complaints to the district and we will make certain that each and every one is addressed.”
One of the simplest and best solutions is for each person to be at the bus stop on time. Every minute the bus has to wait for a latecomer harms everyone on the route and even the buses waiting behind that bus.
To improve matters, the district is looking at possible solutions to “tracking” the children while they ride to school. Blachorsky notes, “I realize it’s extremely frustrating to call and either not get an answer or get one that you don’t want to hear. We have designated a liaison in each school to serve as the conduit between the school and district. I urge all parents to contact that individual rather than calling the district.
“We are doing our best and we are always looking for ways to improve. One area that we can work on is communication. We have a Lawrence app that can be downloaded at Lawrence.org. We will also ask all the schools to be more communicative with the parents as it pertains to busing.”