Monday, Sept. 13, was not just the first day of the new school year for the Rome City School District, it was the first day of school ever for the First Student bus company and its local dispatch operation. According to parents, the first few days of transportation was riddled with lengthy delays, a few no shows and a general lack of communication with the bus company.
On Monday, a group of elementary students at Stokes Elementary School waited for their bus pick up to head home on Monday – scheduled for 3:10 p.m. – that didn’t arrive till approximately 6:30 p.m. District grandfather, “Paul G.,” posted to a Rome community page on Facebook that someone should look into why his 7-year-old grandson and other students were still waiting to be picked up to go home at 6:30 p.m. He indicated that parents had not been notified of the delay.
To further frustrate the situation, all parents and guardians apparently had not been notified of the delay, leaving school staff working late in an effort to connect with all the parents. In response to “Paul G.’s” post, Stokes Principal, Karen Miller, posted in reply, “I’m so sorry. We had two people answering making phone (calls) until 6 pm.”
On Tuesday, delays were spread across several of the elementary schools, with one parent beside herself over how upset her child was when he finally arrived home after waiting close to an hour for First Student to pick him up from another district elementary school.
A parent who responded to a facebook thread regarding the issue, “Sammie L.,” shared that her children arrived home on Tuesday at 6 pm, almost three hours after dismissal. “They were literally drenched in sweat, as if they jumped into a pool with their clothes on,” shared Sammie L., “My 7 year-old was told she could not drink her water. No windows open on the bus. No AC.”
Sammie L. echoed reports from other parents that 5 to 7-year olds were being asked by the drivers to share where they lived. She reported she received no calls or texts from either the school or First Student. She also echoed frustrations at getting nothing but voicemail at the First Student numbers provided and no returned calls from district staff.
Another parent, “Melissa B.,” shared that, on Wednesday, she was still waiting at 4:45 pm for her son to arrive home from Ridge Mills Elementary, over an hour and a half after dismissal, where she lives only three blocks from the school.
In a recent Special Meeting of the Rome Board of Education prior to the first day of school, Vice President, Tanya Davis raised the issue – she said prompted by contact from concerned parents regarding it – of regularly scheduled bus rides being in excess of one hour and up to almost an hour and a half.
She queried Rome Superintendent of Schools, Peter Blake, at that time to inquire about what she believed was a standard that no student bus ride should be scheduled to exceed 55 minutes?
Blake replied to say he was not aware of any such maximum, but a former Board member clarified being aware of an informal “understanding” with the district’s prior long-time transportation provider, Birnie Bus, that student bus rides would be under an hour.
First Student, the national subsidiary to the Cincinnati-based parent company, First Group - which also presides over First Transit, Vehicle Services and is also now invested in Greyhound – submitted the winning proposal just this past spring for the district’s school transportation contract for services previously provided for decades by the Rome-based Birnie Bus Company.
“First Student presented themselves as ‘expert’ in this,” pressed Davis. “That’s why we went with them.”
Blake has responded to the first-week delays to remind district students and families that delays are common for all school districts to open the year.
“Unfortunately, many folks don’t remember how rough the beginning of a school year is with transportation because it’s been two years since we’ve had a full open,” said Blake.
Blake acknowledged this “beginning of a school year” has been exacerbated due to bus driver shortages and COVID, where drivers who ill cause yet more short-staffing.
But, while many parents were sympathetic to the unique challenges this year, including the unexpected closing of Staley Elementary presenting 11th-hour challenges to the Rome district, sentiments are that First Student had plenty of time to prepare to be ready on September 13.
First Student, who as part of their pitch for the Rome school bus business, promised to set up shop in Rome proper to demonstrate that they would make good on their promise that they would be a “local” operation; part of the community.
But, when trying to reach a representative from First Student for insight into the cause of the long delays and how they were working to resolve them, the list of “local” First Student staffers, together with a main number noted on the Rome district website — all listing the 315 area code — yielded nothing but more frustration. Of five contact numbers provided, one is identified as a main number to the “Rome First Student Facility” and four names are listed with titles associated with the other four numbers, all unique, creating the impression they are direct lines. But calls to the Rome Facility number are answered by a recording confirming you’ve reached “First Group America,” the Cincinnati parent company of First Student, then it states FS 12,741. Assume “FS” are the initials for First Student, as the recording never uses the subsidiary’s name, and no clue as to the significance of 12,471. The option of using a dial-by-name directory is offered, but when following the directions to “enter the first three letters of the last name of the person you wish to speak to,” even dialing all the letters of the last names listed on the district site yielded the same result, a computerized voice stating, “I’m sorry. I could not find any names that match your entry. Please try again.” The only other option offered is to dial “zero” to reach an operator. It took three tries to reach one. On the first two attempts, high call volume was blamed for no operator being available, so callers are invited to leave a general voicemail or “try again later.”
Calls to the four numbers listed to reach four, at least apparently, real people with titles who are based in Rome, leave you holding in excess of 30 seconds while they “connect your call” to a computerized voice that tells you you’ve reached the voicemail for … insert the title. No names. So if these are real people, they have not yet set up their voicemail boxes to put a title to their name. Many attempts, different days, different times. No human being has answered any of the numbers; sans the one in three attempts at dialing “zero” where a woman answers but in response to any query of substance was quick to identify herself as “just the person who answers dispatch.” After being advised that the person to speak to for more information about the concerning delays was “in a meeting,” she offers that any one of several people who all have the same role … are all “in a meeting.” After a brief hold, “just the person who answers dispatch” came back on the line to advise that anyone in that office had to adhere to a company policy not to speak to local media about issues around their services. She provided a phone number to a general media relations line at the parent company headquarters in Cincinnati. Once again, callers are met with a recording, directing them in which digit to press depending on whether they are a member of the media or dispatch reporting an issue with the media and to then leave a voicemail – a voicemail to which, not that day or the next, did anyone respond.
FirstGroup is an international company who employs almost 100,000 people. First Student employs over 50,000 people and operates almost as many buses across 39 United States, boasting they are the largest school transportation operation in the country.
To date, after literally dozens of attempts, representatives from either company, when asked to share why a group of 5 to 10 year-olds stood outside their school building awaiting their bus to go home after their first day of school … for over three hours … further to the other concerns shared herein … and after the “local” First Student location in Rome refused to engage and deferred to their parent company’s corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, rather than return the phone call and answer questions, Jen Biddinger, Corporate Communications Manager for First Group, the parent company of First Student and at least three other companies, sent an email under her cover that advanced the following response, which we are sharing verbatim, in its entirety:
“We understand the frustration families feel when there is a service issue. At First Student, our goal is to always transport students in a safe and timely manner.
Delays can occur for a variety of reasons, especially during the first few weeks of school. The new school year is an adjustment for everyone, including students, parents, the district and First Student. We have new bus routes and bus stops to learn.
In addition, we are having to double some routes to accommodate for drivers who are off work right now for various reasons. While this can create delays, it enables us to provide service to as many students as possible.
First Student continues to actively recruit school bus drivers to serve Rome City Schools. We provide paid training, offer starting wages of $17.48 an hour and sign-on bonuses up to $3,000. We encourage those who are interested to apply (workatfirst.com).
We do have driver candidates in various stages of training and hope to add them to our workforce in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we truly appreciate the community’s patience and understanding.”
No member of First Student’s local office in Rome was willing to comment on the community’s concerns or how they are working here in Rome to address them.
According to a report by WKTV last week, they were contacted directly by parents frustrated with being unable to get through to district administrators to express their concerns. According to its reporting, family members of Strough Middle School students said that buses to transport them home did not show up – at all – leaving the students to walk home unless a family member might be available just after 2 pm to pick them up, which working parents likely could not do. Rome’s middle school students are dismissed to boarding awaiting school buses at 2:12 pm. In addition to buses not showing up at all, one Strough grandparent reported that, on Monday and Tuesday, her grandson got home at 4:30 pm and 4:45 pm respectively — drenched in sweat.
In defense of First Student, Blake said that the district received approximately 1000 requests to change students transportation on the day before school started and 500 more requests before 9 am on the first day. He shared that he would rather have drivers take their time during the beginning of the school year.
“In the first two weeks, busses take longer to load at the school and generally will leave school 20 minutes later than normal,” said Blake, “and the routes take longer as the drivers have to get to know the kids and families.”
Blake went on to say that, while we all “need things to be perfect and stress-free, every little deficiency can be a cause for great concern.”
But parents are not expressing frustration regarding buses taking longer to load at school? They are frustrated that buses have not shown up at all. They are not frustrated that buses are leaving school 20 minutes later than normal? They are frustrated at buses not even showing up to load until between 1 and 3 hours later than normal. Parents’ concerns are not limited to routes being longer than normal as drivers get to know them and the students? They are concerned about “normal” routes being scheduled for bus rides between over an hour to almost an hour and a half.
Rome Board of Education President, John Nash, shared on Thursday that, “things have already gotten better and will be back to normal very soon.”
Nash shared that First Student will present a formal presentation at the Regular Meeting of the Rome Board of Education on Thursday, Sept. 23, with that meeting scheduled to be called to order at 6 pm at the district offices. The public is also welcome to attend that meeting in person or via live stream on Zoom with a link available on the district website.