Palm Beach County’s unprecedented school bus crisis this year was caused by a “perfect storm” of institutional failures, from the “undue influence” of a school board member pressuring administrators to the rollout of new technology to a “culture of distrust” that prevented managers’ concerns from being heard, a new investigation concludes.
A sweeping, three-month review by a private attorney blames “multi-system failures throughout the school district” for the weeks of widespread delays with the buses, which left thousands of students stranded for hours at stops and campuses.
Citing the report’s findings, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa announced pay cuts and reprimands for three administrators faulted in the report. The school district’s transportation director, David Davis, resigned last week as Avossa was preparing to fire him.
Among those singled out for blame is School Board member Mike Murgio, who was accused of pressuring transportation department officials to rush the rollout of a new electronic bus-management system. That system is blamed for botching more than 2,000 routes by rewriting them from scratch.
“It would be naive to ignore the influential impact that the board member’s advocacy for this project had on the operation side of the district,” the investigation said.
But the report also skewers top school district officials for bending to the perceived wishes of a single board member, and former Superintendent Wayne Gent for failing to protect his administration from political pressure.
“These staff failures started at the top with former Superintendent Mr. Wayne Gent,” the report said. Gent, who resigned in June and was not interviewed for the investigation, did not respond to a request for comment.
The report also criticizes high-level administrators under Gent, including Chief Operating Officer Mike Burke and Chief of Support Operations Steve Bonino, for failing to “resist outside influence.”
Burke and Bonino will both receive written reprimands and pay cuts for their roles in the school bus failures, Avossa said. Donna Goldstein, a technology manager, will receive a reprimand and will be transferred to a different position.
“Holding people accountable for their actions is paramount,” Avossa said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The investigation was conducted by private attorney Eugene Pettis at Avossa’s request.
The bus problems first became apparent Aug. 17, the first day of school. On that day, officials said buses ran late on 40 percent of the school district’s more than 2,000 routes.
In some cases, buses did not show up at all, forcing thousands of parents to rush children to school in cars and, in some cases, for students to miss school entirely.
The problems continued for weeks, causing many students to fall behind on course work and schools to scramble their schedules to accommodate late-arriving children.
They were largely triggered by decisions made months beforehand. The key decision: rolling out the school district’s new routing software, Compass, in only a few months rather than 18 months.
Transportation officials who made that decision blamed pressure from Murgio, who wanted to see a system in place this year that would allow parents to track their children’s buses online using the buses’ GPS technology.
But as the system was being rolled out, staff members’ concerns about rushing the job went unheeded, the report said.
Officials involved in the project “had raised concerns many times but were forced into submission in trying to carry out the directives of (the school district) and a board member,” the investigation found.
Avossa said Wednesday that Murgio’s heavy involvement showed that “there needs to be a bright line between governance and management.” But he added that it is the superintendent’s responsibility to shield administrators from direct political pressure.
Had he been superintendent at the time, “I probably would have intervened,” Avossa said.
In written rebuttals, Murgio and the administrators faulted in the report criticized its conclusions.
Murgio acknowledged that he heavily lobbied the transportation department to create a cellphone application that would let parents track the position of their children’s buses in real time.
But he said he never called for officials to rush to launch Compass and that he never gave orders.
“I gave no directives,” he wrote. “I only asked questions or gave my opinion.”
Burke lambasted the report’s conclusions, saying that Bonino, his subordinate, concealed information from him and should have had no reason to bend to pressure from Murgio.
The decision to speed up the rollout of Compass was made by Bonino and transportation department officials on their own, he said.
Murgio “was not in a position to issue a directive to staff,” Burke said, adding, “Board pressure does not trump the chain of command.”
In a short rebuttal, Bonino insisted he merely “followed directives of my supervisors, who much like me felt unprotected as a result of the constant pressure from a Board member who, in my opinion, was overtly involved.”
The botched rollout of Compass was not the only factor in the bus problems. The district also grappled with a shortage of bus drivers that top leaders weren’t aware of until days before the school year started.
Administrators also tinkered with the timing of bus arrivals and the start times at several middle schools. In many cases, the changes they made complicated problems further.
Buses’ performance gradually improved as routes were fixed, more drivers were hired and schedules realigned. Avossa said Wednesday that from 95 to 98 percent of buses are arriving on time on any given day, a performance rate that he called satisfactory.
Avossa said the bus meltdown wasn’t a series of isolated bad decisions. He called it a “symptom of a much deeper cultural issue that I need to face and correct.”
Get the latest news about the Palm Beach County School District’s bus problems at the Extra Credit blog. extracredit.blog.PalmBeachPost.com