San Mateo County Office of Education Responses
2002 Grand Jury Recommendations
THE SAN MATEO COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SHOULD PUT THE PUPIL TRANSPORTATION SERVICES CONTRACT OUT TO COMPETITIVE BID PRIOR TO THE END OF THE CURRENT CONTRACT PERIOD.
On July 19, 2002, we extended our contract with A & E (West Coast Transport, Inc.) for one year (2003-2004), with the potential of extending the contract one additional year (2004-2005). We will go out to competitive bid either at the conclusion of the 2003-04 extension or at the conclusion of the 2004-05 extension.
Contract extensions are not entered into lightly and involve considerable negotiations with our contractors. These extensions provide recognition for a job well done and act as incentives to maintain a high level of customer satisfaction. Our contract extensions with A & E Transport have typically been limited to a term of one year and have insured satisfactory levels of service. The lengths of our contracts with A & E Transport are in compliance with relevant Education Code regulations and more importantly, they have created the conditions that have supported our dual goals of efficient and caring service for the children we serve at a cost that is within the financial capabilities of the districts we serve.
THE SAN MATEO COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CREATE A SYSTEM TO PERIODICALLY MONITOR THE CONTRACTOR TO ENFORCE COMPLIANCE WITH THE CONTRACT.
A multifaceted contract-monitoring system is currently in place. The key person in this system is the Special Education Transportation Coordinator. One of the major responsibilities of this position is, as is stated in the job description, “. . . to oversee the service contract of a school bus transportation company. . .”
Ms. Cynthia Flynn currently occupies this position. Her additional responsibilities include:
* supervising daily special education transportation operations, bus
schedules and route assignments
* providing technical review for routing, scheduling, field checking and assignment revisions to bus services
* working closely with school officials, parents and contract carrier staff to
resolve scheduling or other operating problems
* monitoring operations of school bus carrier to ensure compliance with
performance standards, transportation policies, and Education Code
* participating in service negotiations with contract carrier
* preparing and administering transportation budget
* supervising and evaluating staff
The Transportation Coordinator works under the general direction of the Senior Administrator of Special Education Services who reports to the Associate Superintendent of Student Services who in turn reports to the County Superintendent of Schools. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Transportation Coordinator talks to the Program Managers on a daily basis on every imaginable subject related to Special Education transportation ranging from a late bus, to the special need requirement of a new student, to a parental request for a change in pick-up time. Any significant problems are shared with the Senior Administrator of Special Education and the Associate Superintendent of Student Services. And if the problem is sufficiently important, the Superintendent is brought into the discussion. The Grand Jury’s suggestion that we “. . . create a system to periodically monitor the contractor. . .” seems to miss the point that such a system already exists and it operates, not periodically, but daily. The communication between the representatives of A & E, the Coordinator, and Senior County Office Administrative staff is ongoing, frequent and comprehensive. Problems related to transportation are discussed and resolved on a daily basis, and in those very rare cases, when the contractor has been found to be persistently out of compliance with the terms of the contract, sanctions, including monetary penalties, have been imposed.
Clearly, having a monitoring system in place, even one as active and hands-on as ours, does not guarantee a perfect operation. Ours is not perfect and the Grand Jury has addressed some problems that we agree need more focused attention, e.g. making sure that none of our buses exceeds the seven model year limit in age, and placing AM/FM radios on the buses. These are areas of concern which we are currently addressing aggressively. Some recommendations the Grand Jury made are not based on fact or need, e.g. the Grand Jury suggests that all buses should have tinted windows, but they already do. The Grand Jury also alleges that A & E does not have a sufficient number of spare buses (10% of the fleet). The issue of sufficiency of spare buses is one of semantics. We have the percentage of spare buses required by the contract, but because of high maintenance standards, A & E’s Supervisor of Maintenance does not consider all of those buses to be at a “Ready to roll” status unless they have been freshly serviced and inspected. Therefore, his spare bus “Ready to roll” category may be less than 10% on any given day, but there has never been too few buses to cover all routes. The Grand Jury’s recommendation regarding bathroom breaks suggests a need that has never been voiced by our parents, students, teachers or drivers and would contravene another Grand Jury recommendation to shorten the length of time students spend on the buses. (We will address these specific recommendations elsewhere in the report.) But what we would like to address here, since it pertains specifically to this recommendation, is the Grand Jury’s blanket allegation found in the CONCLUSIONS section of its report, that, “ The San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools has not been overseeing the performance of the contract.” That statement is simply false, and given the amount of investigation conducted by the Grand Jury members, it is demonstrably false, and therefore at best, an irresponsible statement and at worst, malicious. We know we can do a better job, but we certainly know we’re doing a very good job. And for the Grand Jury to suggest that we are not doing the job at all is in our opinion, sufficient reason for a note of apology, and we formally request such a note. If the Grand Jury’s statement only applied to the Superintendent, we might be able to simply let it go as an example of inadvertent bad judgement, but since it has been made in such a public manner and has wrongly impugned the diligent work of a great many people who work very hard in very difficult circumstances, we feel that an apology is in order.
We also take strong exception to another statement in the report. The following sentence occurs in the report’s initial paragraph under the heading “SUMMARY”:
“In spite of the fact that the contractor, A & E Transportation Services, is not
in full compliance, the six-year old contract has been extended without competitive bidding, putting children with special needs at risk.”
To suggest that the County Superintendent would put children with special needs at risk is a contemptible accusation, and is one of the most egregiously irresponsible charges that the Superintendent has experienced in his 47 plus years in education. Since it is self-evident that the greatest single duty of any educator is to, in his role of “in loco parentis,” protect the welfare of the children in his charge, and since Dr. Gonella has spent his career doing that in an exemplary fashion, we will dismiss the charge as a faux pas in language use, since to view it in any other way would cast aspersions on the Grand Jury’s motivation for its inclusion in the report. When the Superintendent makes the decision to extend the contract of a carrier, it is precisely the safety of the children that is foremost in his mind. To underscore that point, we should mention that in the most recent review of A & E’s safety record, done by its insurer, National Interstate, A & E’s 85 bus drivers logged, over the period of 2 years, 4.4 MILLION MILES ON THE ROAD WITHOUT THE INJURY OF A SINGLE STUDENT. This exemplary performance is one of the major reasons that the A & E contract has been extended.
Regarding this recommendation, and some others, we would respectfully suggest that some members of the Grand Jury have made the mistake of creating the ideal instead of investigating the real. As educators we are often called upon to review the performance of schools in the state’s accreditation process. Invariably each training begins with the admonition, “Don’t tell people the way YOU do it, find out if the way they are doing it is working.” Perhaps some Grand Jury members don’t like our method of monitoring, or would prefer an alternative organizational structure, or would just like to see one particular activity carried out in a manner that appeals to them. But it is not our job to please individual Grand Jury members or comply with their personal agendas. We serve our students in the best way we know how. If the results of our efforts are wanting, then by all means bring on the criticism, and we will be happy to work on improving. But it is unreasonable to criticize us because we do not look like the preconceived organization that exists in the minds of a few individuals.
WHENEVER POSSIBLE, ROUTES SHOULD BE KEPT TO UNDER AN HOUR LONG. ALTERNATELY, ROUTES THAT ARE LONGER THAN ONE HOUR SHOULD HAVE A SCHEDULED BATHROOM BREAK AT A SCHOOL FACILITY.
We constantly reassess our routing to make the rides student-friendly and as efficient as possible. Our routes are computer generated and take into consideration a multiplicity of factors such as time of day, traffic congestion, proximity of same destination children, etc. However, no matter how well we plan, we cannot alter the crucial factor of distance to program sites. We have relocated some programs so that they are closer to the homes of the students attending them. Still, if there are only, for example, eight visually impaired students in the county and one lives in Half Moon Bay, and another lives in Daly City, and a third lives in Redwood City, someone is going to spend a long time on the bus. The alternative of having three separate teachers at three different sites would be prohibitively expensive. We do make every effort to minimize the time students spend on the bus. In fact, 79% of our bus rides are less than an hour. Moreover, every attempt is made to reduce the number of lengthy bus rides, e.g. revising routes, relocating a program, etc.
As for the specific suggestion of providing scheduled bathroom breaks for hour plus rides, there are several factors to take into consideration. 1) this is a solution to a non-problem. With the exception of specific pre-identified cases (e.g. involving catheterized students), the need for a bathroom break has not been established. This generalized concern has not been raised by the parents, students, drivers, teachers or administrators. 2) Having a rigidly scheduled bathroom break for students who didn’t need one would senselessly prolong the time it takes to get to and from school, something that nobody wants (see the first part of this Grand Jury recommendation).
3) The personnel required to implement this recommendation (an authorized person would have to be with each child throughout the process) would be excessive and the logistics of providing such personnel would be problematic.
THE SAN MATEO COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SHOULD ENSURE THAT INFORMATION RELEVANT TO THE SAFETY AND COMFORT OF THE CHILDREN, INCLUDING THE OBSERVATIONS OF THE BUS DRIVERS, IS INCLUDED ON THE ROUTE SHEETS GIVEN TO THE DRIVERS.
Drivers’ route sheets contain various pieces of information from various sources concerning the students. Teachers, parents, drivers and administrators are all sources of information that may help make the student’s ride a safe and pleasant one. In processing this information, it is important to recognize the priority of data concerning the student’s health needs. Anything critical to a student’s health, e.g. susceptibility to seizures, presence of shunts, status of asthma, allergies, etc. is included on the route sheets. Information is also provided to the drivers on students that have a limited ride time due to medical issues. To emphasize its importance, health related information is printed in red.
A great deal of additional information is provided on the route sheets such as : “car sickness,” “seat alone,” “student screams when bus stops,” “seat by a window,” “seat up-front,” “sensitive hearing,” “brittle bones,” “food allergies,” “fear of dogs,” etc.
When a parent or driver or teacher or program manager makes a request that information be added to a student’s route sheet, the information is added. The only instance when such a request has been denied is the case of a driver seeking medical information protected by confidentiality, e.g. asking if a student is HIV positive.
We believe our system of providing vital information on our route sheets is working very well and we have no plans to change that system.
THE SAN MATEO COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SHOULD ANNUALLY SURVEY PARENTS, GUARDIANS, AND TEACHERS ABOUT THE LEVEL OF SERVICE TO IDENTIFY ANY PROBLEMS THAT NEED TO BE CORRECTED.
Surveys are an important means of identifying problems and establishing baselines of quality of service. We have in the past administered a special education transportation survey for those precise purposes. However, given the intensity and frequency of our day to day monitoring of the special education transportation system, we believe that formal surveys should be used only periodically to validate what our day to day experience tells us, and as a means of measuring changes in levels of satisfaction over time. We believe that the collection of such data on an annual basis is somewhat onerous when we consider the many more essential tasks our staff is charged with accomplishing.
In terms of determining client satisfaction, it is important to note that, in general, there is a good deal of communication between parents and teachers based on long time relationships. Some of our students are with us from birth to age 22 and our stewardship of their learning is very much an active collaboration with their parents. For this reason we have not relied heavily on the use of formal surveys.
Having said that, we do feel a sufficient period of time has passed since our last survey, and we will conduct a similar survey before the end of the next academic year.
THE SAN MATEO COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS SHOULD ESTABLISH A FORMAL FEEDBACK PROCEDURE IN WHICH: A) COMPLAINTS ARE FORWARDED TO THE CONTRACTOR FOR RESPONSE AND PROPOSED CORRECTIVE ACTION, AND B) WRITTEN RECORDS OF COMPLAINTS AND RESPONSES ARE MAINTAINED, AND C) MEETINGS ARE HELD WITH THE CONTRACTOR, AT LEAST SEMI-ANNUALLY, TO REVIEW COMPLAINTS AND RESOLUTIONS MEASURES.
We currently have a system for the processing and resolution of complaints that differentiates minor complaints from those of a more significant nature. It is hard to overestimate how dynamic and people-intensive our normal problem solving process is. A bus is late, a parent phone call is received, a radio transmission to the driver is made, the source of the problem -- a traffic accident, a mechanical malfunction, a delay in the appearance of another student at his pick-up point, a failure of a student’s health-support piece of equipment, a miscommunication about a change in route, an unnoticed alteration in class schedule -- is discovered and a remedy is devised. These sorts of problems are typical of any system involving the many factors common to our enterprise. The last thing we want is paperwork added to the burden of the multiple problem-solvers. The preferred manner of dealing with these problems is to take immediate action and move on to the next problem. On the other hand, if a specific problem is recurring on a regular basis, then it is addressed as a systemic problem requiring deeper analysis and involvement of the chain of command.
If a bus is late, that doesn’t require a written report. When 89 drivers are driving four routes a day, some buses will be late. However, if one of those drivers has been persistently rude, then an investigation and written report are in order. In handling more serious problems, for instance if the bus company consistently fails to have enough substitute drivers on hand, there will be phone calls, meetings, written reports and if resolution is not promptly achieved, the invocation of sanctions. The point is that all problems are not handled in the same manner, nor should they be. Currently all written complaints are forwarded to the contractor for a written response and filed. Drivers fill out Incident Reports for minor incidents on the bus. These reports are kept on file. Also kept on file are citations written for behavioral issues. A written time check on routes is periodically done at our request to monitor late bus issues. And when significant issues arise, a written statement is sent to the contractor for response and meetings are held at the appropriate level of management responsibility.
THE NEXT CONTRACT SHOULD PROVIDE THAT BACKGROUND CHECKS BE PERFORMED AT LEAST EVERY THREE YEARS ON ALL DRIVERS TO THE EXTENT ALLOWED BY THE LAW.
We agree that requiring only an initial background check of drivers is insufficient protection for our students. We have been assured that any crime committed within the state of California by a school bus driver will be reported to us by the local police jurisdiction via the Department of Motor Vehicles, and while that gives us some comfort, we will not receive that type of notification from jurisdictions outside the state. We have been studying this loophole with representatives from the transportation sector, the judicial system and our own county counsel. A solution very much like the Grand Jury’s recommendation has previously been discussed, and is among the options under study.
San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools
By Tom Fitzpatrick
Assistant to the Superintendent