Mother criticizes MCSD after students taken home while sitting on floor of overcrowded bus
The mother delivered her remarks to the MuscogeeCounty School Board in a respectful tone and acknowledged “there is no perfect first day of school,” but she insisted what happened on her child’s bus ride home was “inexcusable.”
That bus from Aaron Cohn Middle School was so overcrowded on Aug. 8, “children were sitting in the aisle, on the floor,” Virginia Korcha told the board during its monthly work session Monday evening.
The situation forced students to choose between stepping on someone or sitting on the floor, Korcha said.
“That should never be a decision a child should have to make,” she said. “… I don’t ever want to see a child on the floor of a bus again.”
Korcha also noted some Muscogee County School District students had to wait as long as two hours for their bus to arrive.
Board chairwoman Kia Chambers, the nine-member panel’s lone countywide representative, asked the administration to respond to Korcha’s complaint.
MCSD chief operations officer David Goldberg apologized “for any inconvenience that anybody’s had” and admitted that two other buses were overcrowded.
“The second day at Aaron Cohn, there were no overcrowded buses,” he said, “because I walked personally on every single bus before they left the driveway to make sure that every student was seated comfortably.”
The bus problems at Aaron Cohn and other MCSD schools come from more students showing up than expected in some areas and fewer students showing up than expected in other areas, Goldberg said.
“This week and next week,” he said, “we will continue to make adjustments to our routes and where we put our resources.”
Goldberg defended and praised MCSD’s transportation workers. “They’re working their tails off,” he said, “and they’re doing a really good job with the resources they have to work with.”
“I’ve never seen a group of people who have worked harder this year trying to have a nice, smooth beginning of the year,” Goldberg said. “They want it to be perfect. … We will never have a day in 180 days of school this year where all the routes are perfect and everything is exactly on time. There’s just too many human factors, mechanical factors, field trips, those types of things that happen, that throw everything off.”
Exacerbating the bus problems this year, MCSD is transporting approximately 3,000 more students than last year for a total of 18,000, Goldberg said. MCSD’s latest total enrollment figure, from March, was 31,569.
District 7 representative Cathy Williams said the bus situation “has not been kosher.” She asked the board to consider creating a policy that requires students to stay at the school, under supervision, until they have a seat on a bus.
Goldberg replied, “Absolutely.”
He said he talked with the driver of Korcha’s bus. All the students were in a seat when the bus pulled away, Goldberg said, but they were overcrowded in their seats.
“As soon as they got on the road, they were all uncomfortable, so they just started flopping down,” Goldberg said. He added that he ensured the driver knows that such a situation is “unacceptable. We won’t have that again.”
The school district’s average load to sit comfortably in a 72-passenger bus is 56 elementary schools students and around 50 middle or high school students, said MCSD transportation director Herbert Hill.
The common practice when a bus is overloaded is to have the extra students wait until the bus can return to pick them up. “That day,” Hill said, “it didn’t happen.”
District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green noted the school district has similar problems at the start of each school year, not just in transportation but also in the cafeterias and in the classrooms, when more students show up than expected.
“We just can’t say thank you to parents enough for all their patience,” Green said.
Chambers asked what parents and the school board can do to support the transportation department.
They should continue to notify the transportation department about problems, Hill said. He doesn’t expect the troubleshooting to be completed until around Labor Day.
“So I ask to be patient,” he said.
Goldberg suggested parents should check the online student information portal called Infinite Campus and ensure their contact information is correct. They also need to be cautious of buses while driving, he said. MCSD buses already have had four “minor fender benders” this school year.
“It’s amazing that people still run into a big yellow bus,” Goldberg said.
Parents of children in second grade or younger must remember that the bus driver can’t let those students leave the bus at their stop without knowing someone is there to pick them up.
“After we run a whole entire route, we bring that one student back to school,” he said.
MCSD still has 10-13 bus driver vacancies, Goldberg said. “We have that many in class right now, but not all those people make it through the class,” he said. “… We’re always fighting that battle.”
Several hundred students registered for school after verification day, so many of those students still don’t have a bus pass, Goldberg said.
“By the end of this week,” he said, “as long as all the registration is taken care of, we should have all the bus passes out to all the students.”
Superintendent David Lewis also apologized for the bus problems.
“It’s our job to make sure we have safe transportation for our students,” he said, “and any time we fail in that endeavor, we all take responsibility.”
Thanks to the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax renewed by Columbus voters for another five years in March 2015, part of that money enabled MCSD to buy 30 new buses last year and five more this year, Lewis said. And those new buses come equipped with air conditioning, he said.
“We are slowly making progress,” he said.
Goldberg asked for anyone who still has a bus problem to call the transportation department (706-748-2876) or email him (David.Goldberg.S@muscogee.k12.ga.us).
No state law prohibits a school bus to operate while students are standing or sitting on the floor, but a Georgia Board of Education rule says 120 percent of a school bus’ listed capacity is the maximum number of passengers allowed, Georgia Department of Education communications director Meghan Frick told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday.
“We emphasize to districts that, if an unexpected overload results in having students standing,” she said, “they need to make resolution a top priority and quickly identify and implement a solution that gets all students sitting.”