The Valley Central School District administration is working overtime to solve the issues with persistently delayed school buses that have beset the district through the first week of the school year, but a major improvement on delay times might not arrive until the middle of next week. The new five-year bus contract that Valley Central and the Wallkill Central School District both inked with East End Bus Lines earlier this year was supposed to streamline transportation services for both districts, but the transition from previous provider First Student proved rocky as soon as the new school year began.
On the first day of classes for Valley Central on Sept. 5, district parents were dismayed when buses ferrying their children home from school arrived two hours late in some instances. Since that opening school day, the delays have been significantly cut, but the buses are still arriving 40-60 minutes late in some cases.
At the Valley Central school board meeting on Monday night, the administration revealed that East End has targeted Sept. 20 as the date when buses could start dropping kids off at local homes on time, with things hopefully back to normal by the end of next week. While the council was not satisfied with that projected timeline, the reality of the situation is that there might not be a quick fix to the transportation problems the transition has presented. Gradual improvements are expected to occur with each passing day.
“We’re fixing one problem at a time,” Valley Central Superintendent John Xanthis said. “The biggest problem that we felt compelled to fix first were the special ed runs. They were a mess, certainly. Kids weren’t being picked up in the district, coming and going. So this past weekend, they worked all weekend to implement the changes and they contacted the parents today (Sept. 11) and the changes are supposed to start tomorrow. Now we can focus on our in-district kids and our routes. That’s why we asked, and we just had the gentleman (East End owner John Mensch) here, what can we tell the public? Hopefully in a week’s time it should be resolved. That’s where we are today. Hopefully special ed has been resolved and now we’re on to all the other issues.”
Xanthis called the delays unacceptable, and said the administration would keep working until the problems were fixed. “It’s a slow, painful process, but they have been getting better,” Board of Education President Sheila Schwartz added. Trustee Melvin Wesenberg said the group made it clear to East End the issues have to be cleared up in the coming days. “We demanded a date where we could say that we’re satisfied,” he said of the discussions with the bus company. “If that’s not met, the board has talked about other aspects that we can do.” Trustee Brad Conklin suggested that a report on the delays should be put together when the problems are repaired so that something like this doesn’t happen again in a future transition to a new bus company. The district didn’t pinpoint a reason for the delays during the board meeting.
At the meeting, concerned parents had their first opportunity to voice their frustrations with the delays in a public setting. Last Tuesday’s delays were particularly troubling for parents whose kids have medical issues, as the students suddenly found themselves on unexpectedly prolonged bus rides. Parent Lorrie Cunningham told the board that she thought the new bus routes weren’t practical, and noted that what used to be a 10-minute ride to school for her child was now taking 45 minutes under the new system. Resident Christine Seipp informed the board that due to the delays, her children were getting home too late each school night to be able to do their homework and get to bed at a reasonable hour before they had to get up and start all over again the next day.
Parents also explained that postcards sent out to district neighborhoods listing the official bus pick-up times varied even within the same bus stop. “The times don’t make sense,” resident Michelle Stalter said. “How do we have different times at the same stop? How is my child supposed to get from a bus from school to the town in 10 minutes? It’s not possible to begin with, and then to have it be this late is not okay.” The district is communicating regularly via phone calls and texts to update parents on what time their children will be arriving home.
Parent Janet Williamson explained that while her child’s bus had arrived home no earlier than 5 p.m. each day this school year, it’s more than an hour late. “The district has increased communication, but my concern is emergencies,” she said. “God forbid there’s an emergency. I have no confidence in this bus company that they can even dispatch buses. They can’t even do it for a regular dismissal, so how are they going to do it in an emergency case?”
When Valley Central and Wallkill decided to make the switch from First Student to East End, the new bus company, which is based in Long Island, had to acquire a bus yard in the area to house its vehicles. Since First Student had no interest in letting East End take over its established location on Route 208 in Wallkill, East End bought a depot in Maybrook and parked its vehicles there, adding another element to the transition to a new bus provider for both districts.
Prior to the beginning of the school year, the Valley Central administration explained that it had worked alongside East End to devise more efficient routes, including the elimination of two bus lines from last year. The district also instituted new bell schedules for the high school and middle school, with both sites beginning classes 15 minutes later than last year. Xanthis noted on Monday that East End had told the district that it was deploying the same number of buses to transport kids each day that First Student used last year. The district is exploring all options with East End to fix the delays, even the possibility of reverting back to last year’s routes. “Maybe we have to change our schedules or go back to the old bus route, but we can’t do that until they have time to look at the routes,” Xanthis said. “Maybe they’ll adjust some kids or add some buses. All of those things have to be determined. They collapsed some things, but it could be the solution to bring those two routes back, or maybe more routes back. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes, but the bus company hasn’t had the time to look at that part, because their first order of business was taking care of our special ed kids.”
Multiple buses have been arriving behind schedule each morning at the high school, leaving the bus company playing catch-up to start the day. A transportation consultant has been brought in at the request of both districts to work with East End to end the delays.
While the daily delays have been aggravating, Stalter credited the staff at the Valley Central schools for going above and beyond their duties to take care of the children while they wait for buses to pick them up after school. “Since the very first day, the teachers in the schools and the local administrations, meaning the principals, vice principals and other staff members, have been staying past their duty to take care of these children,” she said. “To me, that is such a commendation that it should be noted.”
By Ted Remsnyder