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Officials to unveil measures to prevent school bus delays

Lesson learned, department works to avert tardiness

Boston school leaders are expected Tuesday to unveil measures intended to avoid the widespread, prolonged bus delays that marred the first months of this school year.

Instead of waiting until the summer to draft bus routes for the 2012-13 academic year, officials have already begun making those plans, commencing once the student school-assignment process was largely complete.

And drivers will get a look at routes and schedules long before sliding behind the wheel of their yellow buses. That didn't happen last September, when new, computer-drawn routes failed to take into account the peculiarities of Boston traffic or how long it takes to pick up and drop off students.

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"We don't want to ever again experience the transportation troubles we had this school year,'' Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said in a prepared statement. "We directed our transportation department to make significant changes that will enable us to serve our families better than ever.''

During the past 3 1/2 months, school bus arrivals have improved, with the district's nearly 700 buses arriving by the bell 90 percent of the time or better.

That's not good enough, parents said.

"I won't say I would agree they're on time 90 percent of the time, but a goal of 90 percent to me is a D,'' said Chris Doherty, a father of fourth-grade twins who attend the Edison K-8 School in Brighton. "They need to be on time 99 percent of the time, and anything less than that really doesn't make any sense to me.''

Still, the recent arrival rates are a substantial improvement over last fall, when as many as one-quarter to one-third of buses often arrived late, sometimes by nearly an hour.

"We kind of had a perfect storm,'' said Kim Rice, whose portfolio as the district's assistant chief operating officer includes transportation.

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In addition to the software woes, the School Department had an unusually large number of students changing schools. That was because buildings closed or schools merged, and because of new options for students in special education and English as a second language programs, Rice said. The district also had not reached a contract agreement with the drivers' union, adding up to what Rice called too many variables to capably move about 30,000 students in a timely fashion.

Working with drivers and others to redraw routes helped the department exceed 90 percent on-time performance this spring, she said.On Monday, officials said nearly 99 percent of buses in the first of three morning runs - schools start in waves so buses and drivers can move more children - arrived on time, dropping to 89 percent for the second run and 91 percent for the third.

The School Department demoted its transportation chief last fall, appointing in March a new interim chief - Harvard Kennedy School graduate Carl Allen, likely to become permanent director - while requiring bus contractor First Student Inc. to remove the manager of its Charlestown yard, the lowest-performing of Boston's four school-bus yards, Rice said.

Other changes are aimed at customer service. During the last three months, the department has overhauled its system for the public to report questions or complaints by phone or e-mail, emulating the mayor's hot line for other civic issues, with retrained operators and a tracking system to improve follow-up.

And for the first time, parents will have an opportunity before September to request transportation to after-school programs for their children - an optional service that the district traditionally tried to build into routes after the school year started, creating inconvenience and hardship for families, Rice said.

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Stevan Kirschbaum, spokesman for the Boston School Bus Drivers' Union, said it makes sense for the district to consult with drivers on planning, citing computer-determined routes that had buses running in circles to avoid left-hand turns.

"When the fiasco happened this fall, the primary stakeholder who was able to solve the problem . . . was the actual union bus driver,'' said Kirschbaum, who has been driving since 1974.

Parents whose children were tardy in the fall said Monday they welcomed the steps the district is expected to announce.

Marcel Tuitt, of South Boston, who condemned the chronic lateness of buses during a City Council candidates' forum last October, said her children's buses have arrived more promptly this semester at Dever Elementary School, though drivers are still occasionally tardy by more than just a few minutes.

"It was really, really bad,'' she said of the delays last fall.

Tuitt said she also appreciated the customer service line improvements because when she called the district's transportation department in the fall, she was often kept on hold for an hour or longer.

The Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr., chairman of the School Committee, said he expects the plan will result in significant improvements, citing particularly the call for better communication with parents and steps to foster a rapport with drivers.

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"It brings the bus drivers into a greater ownership, because they also see and recognize that they're being appreciated by the students and parents and the school system,'' Groover said.


Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.