Metro

A new year for Boston Public Schools, but an old problem — late buses

Parents waited with their children for a bus that was running late on Geneva Avenue on Thursday.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Parents waited with their children for a bus that was running late on Geneva Avenue on Thursday.

Late buses plagued the start of school in Boston on Thursday as temperatures climbed into the 90s in thick humid air, causing some students at bus stops to give up in frustration and go home after waiting almost an hour.

Nearly half of the buses were tardy, but 80 percent of all buses arrived within 15 minutes of the opening bell, school officials said. That performance was better than the first day last year when 59 percent of buses were late. But it was comparable with two years ago when 49 percent were late.

The problems came amid negotiations for a new contract with the bus drivers union, which has threatened to hit the picket lines if members can’t secure a fair deal. But Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he didn’t think the two issues were related, and he put in a good word for the drivers.

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“They love transporting the kids of this city,” said Walsh, as he fielded questions at an East Boston park after leading 350 kindergartners in a short parade around the neighborhood. “In some ways, these kids become their family: When they pick the kids up at the corner, they get to know the kids and their families throughout the course of the year.”

Third-grade student Heaven Jones rubbed her eyes while she waited for the bus with her mother Diamond Jones (left) at Geneva Avenue and Westville Street with other students and parents.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Third-grade student Heaven Jones rubbed her eyes while she waited for the bus with her mother Diamond Jones (left) at Geneva Avenue and Westville Street with other students and parents.
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Interim Superintendent Laura Perille, who also turned out for the parade, characterized the longer delays as “isolated incidents.”

“We have folks at the call center responding,” she said. “Our focus is on getting every single child to school safely and quickly.”

But for many families and students, the delays marred what should have been a fresh start to a new academic year.

With a backpack strapped to her back and an umbrella in her hand, Valentina Lopez, 11, arrived at a bus stop on Washington Street in Roslindale with her grandmother at 6:17 a.m. She was all set for her first day of sixth grade, donning a blue polo shirt bearing her school’s name — Boston Green Academy — along with khakis and red sneakers.

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And then they waited for nearly an hour. At one point, a yellow bus approached them, but then Lopez said, “He just drove by us.”

Finally, at 7:07 a.m., they gave up, and started walking home.

The problems that unfolded Thursday were similar to those that hit several Boston schools — mostly independent charters — that began classes in August. Buses over the last week ran as much as two hours late, while some never showed up at bus stops or at schools.

The school system last week blamed the problem on unexpected driver absences, but the bus drivers union Monday accused the school system and its transportation contractor of failing to assign drivers to all the routes.

Some of the charters still experienced bus issues Thursday. Brooke Charter School’s Mattapan campus sent messages out to some parents about a half hour before their 4 p.m. dismissal informing them that their children’s bus had been canceled because there was no driver. Then the school was surprised when another bus never showed up.

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Two other Brooke campuses — one in East Boston and another in Roslindale — each had a bus running at least 90 minutes late for afternoon pickup. It was a sharp contrast to the morning runs when the buses ran on time.

Julia Mejia, of Dorchester, who founded the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, said she was frustrated that her 8-year-old daughter’s bus had been canceled.

“Can the city pay for an Uber?” she wondered. “Working parents who can’t afford Uber and who cannot rely on public transportation continue to be the ones impacted the most by this debacle.”

The play area at a bus stop on Geneva Avenue.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The play area at a bus stop on Geneva Avenue.

The city’s school buses often run late on the first day of school as drivers get accustomed to new routes and families to new routines. Last year, the school system, which developed what were supposed to be more efficient routes with software by MIT researchers, accused some bus drivers of leaving the bus yards late, which bus drivers disputed.

As of 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the school system had logged 2,244 calls to its transportation center hot line with an average hold time of 13 minutes and 44 seconds. That was better than last year, when the center received 2,554 calls with an average hold time of 18 minutes and 19 seconds.

The school system increased its call center staff from 32 to 40 this year.

The school system praised the performance of its buses in a statement.

“BPS is pleased that Thursday morning’s on-time performance was better than the first day of school last year, and we are confident that service will continue to improve,” the statement said.

To help students pass time as they wait for the buses, the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics created four play areas at school bus stops under an initiative known as Playful Boston.

The corner of Geneva Avenue and Westville Street in Dorchester, where buses pick up more than 200 children, featured brightly colored Vietnamese-inspired folk instruments made out of PVC pipes and recycled materials. In Roxbury, children could use chalk to fill in a life-size coloring book page. In East Boston, students could solve a mystery map by following various lines and paths.

But in Roslindale, where students at one stop could spin three wheels to create phrases in English and Spanish that they could act out, the apparatus sat dormant Thursday morning as students grew impatient waiting for the buses.

Gaby Arroyo, 11, and Jesyel Colon, 11, waited with their grandfather for their bus to pick them up at the same Roslindale spot where Lopez had earlier waited unsuccessfully for a ride. They were both starting the sixth grade at the Haley Pilot School in Roslindale and arrived at the bus stop around 7:30 a.m. for a 7:46 a.m. pickup.

But no bus stopped for them. Around 8:38 a.m., nearly an hour after the students should have been on their way to school, the children and their grandfather gave up and left.

Ninth-grader Keilyn Ordonez went over her welcome-back-to-school schedule packet with her mother, Maria Bennett, at English High School.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Ninth-grader Keilyn Ordonez went over her welcome-back-to-school schedule packet with her mother, Maria Bennett, at English High School.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.