Collision course: Inside Palm Beach County’s school bus crisis


Mid-level school administrators knew for months about major problems with their rushed rollout of the computer system now blamed for Palm Beach County’s weeks-long school bus crisis, but they kept the information from top executives who could have changed course, records show.

In the three-month run-up to the start of classes, administrators stood by as their new bus-routing system produced bizarre, wildly flawed routes that would be impossible for drivers to complete on time, a Palm Beach Post review of school district records reveals.

Their actions set off a grim comedy of errors, from the erasure of thousands of longtime routes, to the drawing up of new ones that treated buses like sports cars, to the creation of stops for students who no longer attended school.

Yet transportation officials, led by Chief of Support Operations Steve Bonino, continued producing the nonsensical routes without fixing them, while ignoring or dismissing warnings about how much the accelerated rollout of their new system would harm students.

The result was weeks of havoc that forced tens of thousands of students to show up late for school day after day and, in some cases, miss school entirely. Students with disabilities were disproportionately affected and forced to endure unusually long bus rides, unsafe dropoffs and undependable service.

The weeks of crisis have been widely publicized, but the extent of administrators’ awareness of the key problems has never been fully revealed.

For a clearer picture, The Post reviewed 1,300 pages of emails, memos and interview transcripts collected by Eugene Pettis, a district-hired attorney given a $50,000 contract to investigate the unprecedented busing meltdown. He issued a 27-page report in November that faulted several school district officials but omitted many details that showed what went wrong.

The Post’s review found that transportation administrators not only knew for months that things were going badly, they soft-pedaled the problems, ignored them or left them out entirely in reports to higher-ups.

Among The Post’s findings:

  • Thousands of mentally and physically disabled students bore the brunt of the crisis, as the school district ignored warnings that its new routing system could not handle disabled students’ specialized routes.
  • A small group of transportation workers spent hundreds of man-hours fixing flawed routes, but their work was discarded in early August by administrators who said the effort was taking too long.
  • As classes began Aug. 17, transportation managers left unprocessed more than 2,000 requests for bus service from disabled children. Countless students with disabilities were denied access to buses for weeks as officials worked their way through the backlog.

 

The story of how things went so wrong reveals that school district officials had several opportunities to reverse course as problems mounted.

Instead, they pressed ahead toward disaster.

New system rushed

despite warnings

When the school district acquired a new bus-routing program called Compass in 2014, officials saw it as a way to modernize their routes, which until then largely had been drawn by hand.

Vendors warned the district not to use the $217,000 program to manage the specialized buses that transport disabled students. But for regular routes, the program promised more flexibility and efficiency.

Administrators initially planned to phase in the program over a year and a half, allowing it to co-exist alongside the previous system until August 2016.

But the rollout was rushed as part of an apparent attempt to appease School Board member Mike Murgio, who had been lobbying transportation officials for months to create a cellphone application that would let parents track their children’s buses in real time.

After months of pressure, Bonino, whose duties included overseeing the district’s transportation department, decided in February or March to speed up the rollout of Compass, two school district officials said. On March 24, Bonino presented his decision to his supervisor, Chief Operations Officer Mike Burke, who OK’d the plan. Bonino and Burke both declined to comment.

Murgio had not asked for Compass to be rushed. But Bonino and his team decided that doing so would make it easier to put in place the cellphone application that Murgio wanted. Instead of phasing it in slowly until August 2016, Compass was now to be in place by the start of school.

The decision was controversial with staff from the start.

Donna Goldstein, the administrator overseeing Compass, had warned against rushing out such a complex system. And even though the rollout time was cut by more than half, no extra staff was assigned to the effort.

Even after the decision to speed things up, work progressed slowly. And for good reason: Key administrators still didn’t know how to use the program.

It wasn’t until late April that the company that sells Compass sent staff to train school district workers.

Even after the training, the routing team worked slowly — too slowly for Goldstein and other supervisors. Goldstein felt that many directions were being ignored by the team’s leader, a new employee named Glendon Morgan.

Morgan, though, was struggling to figure out how to get started. The Compass vendor had uploaded the district’s routes into the new system, but the data were in bad shape and needed to be cleaned, an arduous process that Morgan hadn’t expected his team would have to do.

The time crunch worried him. When Morgan was hired, he had been told he would have more than a year to complete the district’s transition to Compass. Now he had less than four months.

In a meeting with Goldstein and other transportation officials, he warned that they would never finish the rollout by August.

And then in May, his team made a tremendous error.

Supervisor refuses

to call off plan

Instead of simply moving the county’s 3,200 bus routes into the Compass system unchanged, Morgan’s team directed the program to automatically redesign every route from scratch.

In theory, the new, computer-designed routes should have been more efficient.

In reality, they were a disaster.

The new routes discarded years of tinkering and adjustments by drivers who understood the local roads. Many routes, bizarrely, now had drivers zigzagging from one part of the county to the other.

They included impossible schedules that assumed that buses would get from one point to another in times that even a speeding car could not manage.

Goldstein first noticed the problems in mid-May. In an email to Morgan, she asked what his team planned to do about routes “that look absolutely ridiculous.”

“What’s the game plan here?” she asked in the May 12 message. “Are we just trying to get these through and then go back in to each individual run and move stops and optimize?”

Morgan responded that the routes would be fixed later. He blamed the Compass software and “bad data” in the school district’s routing system.

But records indicate that few, if any, fixes were made by his team.

By early June, it became increasingly apparent that the routes would not be ready on time. Goldstein learned that Morgan’s team had redrawn all the routes from scratch.

Fed up with Morgan’s performance, administrators fired him in mid-June while he was still on probation, leaving the project without a nominal chief.

Fearing a crisis, Goldstein and another transportation official, Lauriann Basel, went to Bonino, who was supervising their project. Together, they argued that they call off the rushed transition to Compass.

Bonino refused.

“We have no choice,” he told them, they both recalled. He explained that he had made a commitment to Burke, the chief operating officer. He didn’t want to back out.

The project would move forward as planned.

Burke knew that Murgio had been lobbying Bonino and his staff to create a cellphone application.

But records indicate that Bonino never relayed the growing concerns about the rushed rollout to either Burke or Robert Avossa, the superintendent who took office on June 15.

“Had Mr. Bonino been forthright, I could have intervened and help avoid the failed implementation,” Burke wrote in a memo to Pettis, who faulted both Bonino and Burke in his report but made little distinction between their roles.

Bonino, in an interview with Pettis, later blamed the decision entirely on pressure from Murgio, although he did not explain why he refused to reconsider in light of the increasing problems.

“In my opinion … we didn’t have a choice,” he said.

The flawed routes kept rolling out, their massive problems ignored.

“We just did not have time to quality-control,” one router, Joseph Vetere, said in an interview with Pettis. “We fed the data into the system and trusted that it was correct.”

‘I just want

to scream’

Another factor complicated things even further: Burke and other top administrators had decided to make several changes to school start times.

The idea was to standardize start times across the county, but the change created additional headaches for workers who had to reprogram routes to account for the changes. And it would prove to make problems at some schools even worse.

Transportation officials complained privately for weeks about the change, with Goldstein confiding to a colleague that if things went wrong, top administrators would be to blame.

“They made the decision,” she wrote in a June 25 email. “They will live with the consequences.”

Two days later, Goldstein emailed Bonino to update him on their progress. There was no mention of the school schedule problems.

Instead, Goldstein struck an optimistic note, just weeks after telling Bonino the rollout should be called off.

“Suffice to say we are on the road to success and are overcoming every obstacle we encounter,” she assured him.

(Through a district spokeswoman, Goldstein said that she was referring only to her team’s “ability to print out route sheets.” The email in which her comment appears, however, focuses on the broader project).

By late July, even more problems were becoming apparent.

Goldstein discovered a major error: the new bus schedules had been drawn up by Compass as if the buses always drove at the maximum speed limit.

Since buses move slowly and often cover large distances before reaching the maximum legal speed, this quirk was creating bus schedules that were unrealistic.

All of the bus routes would have to be recalculated, she announced to the staff.

“I just want to scream,” she wrote, “but I have maintained my composure — for now.”

By then, other people were starting to raise concerns.

David Davis, the transportation director, who largely had been kept away from the Compass project by Bonino, his supervisor, became aware of the extent of problems with the routes.

On July 30, he warned Bonino in a face-to-face meeting that the routes would not work. Later that day, Davis ordered Vetere and Goldstein to revert back to the previous year’s routes.

They refused. Those routes had been erased and would have to be re-created manually.

“We cannot do this, period,” Goldstein wrote to him. “Your involvement is too late and there is not enough time to satisfy this request.”

“I gave a directive,” Davis responded. “Do it.”

Effort to salvage

discarded routes

The next day, Davis later recalled, officials started reconstructing some of the routes. But with less than three weeks until the start of school, they had run out of time.

They weren’t the only ones. In the district’s Riviera Beach compound, a team of staffers worked around the clock for days to convert the north county’s mangled routes back to their original versions, a last-ditch effort to salvage them.

But after countless hours of overtime, gathered around a single conference table, the team members were instructed by administrators to stop.

They were taking too long, they were told.

Their work was discarded.

“I was pissed,” said Howard Brown, a supervisor in the district’s Riviera Beach compound, in an interview with Pettis, “because I spent 16 to 14 hours a day with my team trying to make this happen.”

The problems continued. One route-designer got into a shouting match with Vetere, telling him the routes were “bull——.” They ended up in Bonino’s office, where the route-designer warned Bonino again that the new routes would be big trouble.

Officials discovered “orphan stops” spread throughout the bus routes — stops that didn’t belong but had appeared through a quirk of the Compass program.

It was discovered that new student information wasn’t being uploaded into Compass. Thousands of students still were registered at the schools (and bus stops) they had attended the year before. Stops were being scheduled for former students who had graduated the year before.

In early August, most drivers saw the routes for the first time. They were so upset by the unrealistic schedules — many of which had the effect of cutting their work hours — that they boycotted the Aug. 10 “bid day” event where drivers choose routes by seniority.

Administrators resolved the drivers’ concerns by guaranteeing them their hours wouldn’t be cut, and the selection process was rescheduled. But the underlying problem — the flawed routes — was left unfixed.

When classes started on Aug. 17, schools opened to chaos.

Nearly half of the district’s more than 600 buses ran late, many by hours. Many didn’t show up at all, including every bus at Grassy Waters Elementary in West Palm Beach while Avossa, the new superintendent, was touring the school.

Callers overwhelmed the transportation department’s help line. To deal with a shortage of about 50 drivers, supervisors and mechanics were dispatched to drive, leaving no one to handle complaints.

The problems hit the most vulnerable students hardest.

District officials had ignored the Compass vendors’ warning not to use the program for buses that transport disabled students. Because those specialized routes change frequently and often go door-to-door, the decision created a host of technical problems that doomed bus service for countless special-needs children.

Thousands of students with disabilities were never registered for bus service they had requested weeks or months earlier. Many would go weeks without a bus arriving at their home.

The district’s bus-tracking website crashed under the weight of so many requests for service.

The county’s new superintendent, blindsided by the implosion, was livid. Outraged parents bombarded the district with complaints.

The problems that transportation administrators had watched unfold for months were coming to bear, and they would persist for weeks.

Around midday, Goldstein emailed the Compass vendor to relay the problems. This time there was no soft-pedaling.

“The system is failing,” she wrote.


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