By MARINA WATERS
The wheels on the bus weren’t exactly going round and round in Washington County last week — the first week of the new school year — with missed bus routes and students arriving to and from school much later than scheduled. But those at the central office say they are working to change that, along with other bus-related problems.
“I know everybody here is aware we’ve had some issues,” WCDE special projects manager Jarrod Adams said at the Washington County Board of Education’s Aug. 9 meeting. “I would honestly say that those issues are not much different from issues we’ve had in years past. Bus routes change, bus numbers change, kids move from Point A to Point B, a kid moves in and we don’t know they’re there. As a parent of kids in system, I understand the frustration.”
In addition to route issues, Adams also addressed the shortage of bus drivers in the county system during the meeting’s staff report session. Adams said two Washington County bus drivers are about to undergo training while five bus drivers have “taken some type of medical leave to varying degrees and different lengths.” He also said there is one bus mechanic on a four-week leave of absence while another recently resigned. The department also saw a retirement and a resignation on Friday, Aug. 3, just three days before the first day of school, Adams said.
That wasn’t the first of the transportation department’s woes where employees are concerned; at the July BOE meeting, multiple bus drivers attended the school board meeting with concerns and grievances in regards to the transportation supervisor who was hired after the former transportation supervisor was terminated in March of 2018. Leading up to the former supervisor’s termination last spring, two bus crashes were reported in Washington County within a two-day span. Following those incidents, reports showed that a drug screening had not been conducted for drivers in the school system since the fall of 2014.
“I think overall our transportation department is running much more smooth than it ought to be right now after delving into the issues that came to light in February and March,” Adams said. “We are basically trying to build our transportation department from the ground up on the fly.”
The department has hit its fair share of stumbling blocks since then; Adams said it was recently discovered that the school system’s bus routing and planning program, Versatrans, had not been updated in four years. Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary also confirmed the issue at an earlier meeting with county officials. The failure to update the system, Adams said, also played a large role in the miscommunication where buses and bus routes were concerned the first week of the school year.
“When people would call us and say, ‘What bus is supposed to pick my child up?’, we get on Versatrans, which is the easiest way to figure that out,” Adams said, “and it’s not right. I don’t mind to take responsibility for that. I thought it was being done. Now I know it wasn’t and I guarantee you I’ll take care of that with (Flanary’s) support. He’s been 100 percent behind what we’re trying to do. We’ll take care of it. It will get done.”
While the department handles program issues, board members also expressed concerns for the students who board those buses.
Board member Keith Ervin asked if, when arriving late to school due to the bus mishaps, the kids are offered breakfast before having to head to class. Adams said “absolutely.”
“That is a rumor. In every school building … they get off the bus, they go straight to the cafeteria and they have the option to get their breakfast,” Adams said. “If they don’t take it, we can’t make them, but they are offered the opportunity to get their school breakfast. As a person in this school system, I take offense that anyone would ever say that we would not feed our school children.
Board member David Hammond said he had received phone calls about kids having to stand up on the bus. Adams said the school system had experienced one instance of that.
“The bus was so full there were kids refusing to sit in a seat with another student,” Adams said. “They usually, I guess, would have a seat to themselves. We are divvying up those kids so we don’t have that situation.”
Though Washington County has seen its share of bus-related issues, Adams said the Tennessee Director of Student Transportation Tammy Knipp has “lauded the progress” the county school system has made since last spring when the former director of schools, Kimber Halliburton, reached out to state officials from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security who met with the director and central office staff to help the county system improve upon its transportation services. Now, Adams said, the Washington County School System will host a regional meeting for transportation supervisors to share those ideas.
“While we’re on the front page for certain issues, a lot of the other transportation departments across the state are in disrepair as well,” Adams said. “So they are coming here so she can show them what it is we’re doing right because that’s how good our transportation department is getting. We’re not there yet, but we’re building that and I’m excited for that.”