This week, Molly Bullington is feeling optimistic about Roanoke schools’ transportation situation. Last week was a totally different story.
She and her family live in Roanoke’s Deyerle neighborhood. Her son Sam, 10, is a fourth grader in the Plato program at Highland Park Elementary. Her daughter Caroline, 8, is a third grader at Grandin Court Elementary.
That means the kids ride different school buses, although the Bullingtons drive Sam to school in the morning because otherwise he’d have to catch the bus at 6:32 a.m. That time is important for later in this saga.
On the first day of classes, Aug. 20, “Caroline was home by 3 p.m., which was great,” Bullington told me. But where was Sam? That’s something she wondered about for the next two hours.
About 4 p.m., “I thought, ‘Huh, it’s getting kind of late,’ ” Bullington recalled. She exchanged texts with a second mother whose child was on the same bus as Sam. The other mom shared Bullington’s concern.
At 4:13 p.m., Bullington tried calling Durham School Services, the city school system’s new bus contractor. Beginning last week, Durham replaced Mountain Valley Transportation, another private contractor that had handled student transportation since 2009.
Bullington couldn’t get through to Durham.
“It would ring like four times and go to voicemail, and the voicemail was full,” Bullington said.
Next she called Highland Park Elementary.
Whoever Bullington spoke to there “said they had the same phone number for Durham that I had,” she said. “They couldn’t get in touch with [Durham] either.”
In the meantime, the other mother hopped in her car and began driving the bus route, Bullington said. That mom couldn’t find the bus.
Bullington’s next four calls were to Durham, Highland Park, a third mother who was looking for her child and to the school system’s central administration office. A seventh call, at 4:53 p.m., went to Deputy Superintendent Dan Lyons’ secretary, Bullington said. It lasted 12 minutes.
By the end of that call, Lyons’ secretary had informed Bullington that Sam’s bus had been located. It was stuck on Barham Road, a residential street in the Grandin Court neighborhood.
Bullington aimed her minivan in that direction. She arrived there just before 5:17 p.m. She knows the exact time because that’s when Bullington made her eighth call in two hours, to let Lyons’ secretary know she found the bus.
“It’s a narrow street, and there were cars parked on both sides,” Bullington said. It appeared the driver was afraid to try to pull through, Bullington added. She observed two other parents pick up their children there.
Here’s what Bullington later gleaned, after talking with Sam and other mothers of students on the bus:
The bus departed Highland Park about 2:45 p.m., 20 minutes after school let out. After it left Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood “it passed Earth Fare [a supermarket on Franklin Road Southwest] five times and Towers Shopping Center [at the intersection of Brandon and Colonial avenues southwest] three times,” Bullington said.
“Evidently, the driver didn’t know the route, and she kept looking for this one stop that she couldn’t find,” Bullington added.
Anyway, Sam got home safe, sound — and about two-and-a-half hours late.
The next morning was Caroline’s turn for a school bus misadventure.
The third grader was waiting at her bus stop shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday when a bus pulled up. She dutifully climbed aboard and watched out the window as it proceeded in a different direction on different streets than the bus she’d ridden to Grandin Court Elementary a day earlier.
In fact, that bus was headed for Highland Park Elementary. It was the Plato-program bus Sam would normally ride — if he rode the bus in the morning, Bullington said.
“It was running 20 minutes late,” Bullington said. When her 8-year-old daughter climbed on, she didn’t realize it wasn’t the bus to Grandin Court Elementary. “And it was only the second day of school, and the driver didn’t know all the kids’ faces yet, so the driver didn’t realize she shouldn’t have been on it,” Bullington said.
As the bus lumbered in what seemed the wrong direction, Caroline told the driver something was amiss, Bullington said. The driver dropped her off at Grandin Court Elementary and Caroline got to school on time.
That was only a minor detour, Bullington added, because the Plato bus goes through the Grandin Court neighborhood on school-day mornings.
Later Wednesday morning, Bullington called Lyons’ office again “to give them an update on what happened to Caroline that morning.”
By then, through a network of moms that Bullington’s plugged into, she was well aware that lots of kids had been late arriving to their schools and late getting home. In the Wednesday morning call, Bullington ended up on the phone with Lyons.
“He was very nice,” Bullington recalled and sounded not at all harried. “Can you imagine all the parents who were calling?”
Since Aug. 20, “Roanoke City Schools have received 84 complaints about buses,” said Justin McLeod, the school system’s spokesman. Either Lyons or someone from Durham returned calls to each person who left a callback number, McLeod added.
The good news is, since last Wednesday, the Bullington kids have been getting to school and getting home on time. But Bullington knows that hasn’t been every parent’s experience, thanks to system-wide robo-messages that kept calling the Bullington household last week.
Those bore the voice of McLeod, Bullington said. Friday afternoon’s district-wide robocall message warned parents of late buses for students from 13 different schools.
“Each day, Justin’s voice sounded more and more worn down” on those messages, Bullington said.
Meanwhile, school buses running late has become a central theme of conversations among moms, she said.
“We were talking about getting our kids together on Friday afternoon,” Bullington recalled. “Somebody joked, ‘Well, it might not be until 7 p.m.’ ”
This past Tuesday, Durham School Services announced its general manager for local operations was no longer employed with the company. His last day was Friday.
The concern among parents is entirely understandable. It’s also likely that many of those parents don’t recall 10 years ago, when Durham’s predecessor, Mountain Valley Transportation, began its operations after the school system first privatized its bus system.
I remember those days. I had kids in middle and high school back then. The same kind of kinks occurred with Mountain Valley Transportation.
This, too, shall pass.