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CMS is making progress on late school buses. But it can’t compete with Wake County.

Almost 100,000 CMS students ride the bus each day

Adam Johnson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg executive transportation director, asks for parents patience to start the school year.
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Adam Johnson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg executive transportation director, asks for parents patience to start the school year.

Charlote-Mecklenburg Schools got 81 percent of its buses to school on time Tuesday, compared with 62 percent on the first day of school.

And all but one bus had finished its evening runs by 7 p.m Tuesday, compared with 19 that ran later than that Monday. One student was dropped off shortly after 8 p.m on the first day.

For a district with almost 1,100 buses and 100,000 riders, that means thousands more children got to school on time.

But it didn’t match the performance of Wake County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, which reported that 97 percent of buses got to school on time the first day and 98 percent Tuesday. Wake officials said the average late arrival was six minutes after the bell, while CMS had some buses that were more than an hour late on Monday.

The CMS late buses affected only a small percentage of riders, but frustration ran high for those families.

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“My son did not leave his school until an hour after dismissal. When he finally got on the bus he texted me that he would be late,” one parent posted on Facebook. “He was told he could not use his phone to contact us while waiting in the school cafeteria after hours. I could have picked him up had we known. “

On Tuesday, a CMS transportation update said the evening delays started with slow student dismissal at some of the schools that let out first, which created ripples as those buses ran late to get to the next schools on their routes. CMS uses staggered bell schedules, with dismissal times running from 2:15 to 4:15 p.m., so one bus can serve three or four schools in the afternoon.

Morning and afternoon runs were complicated by traffic at schools, as hordes of parent drivers, some of them new to the schools, lined up to drop off and pick up kids. Many families deliver their kids in person on the first day, even if they eventually plan to use the bus. That makes it more complicated for drivers and transportation officials to figure out how many riders to expect at assigned stops.

“It took me about an hour to get through car pool line and there were still buses arriving at 5 p.m.,” a parent posted about her experience at a magnet school with a 4:15 dismissal. She said she picked her son up after his bus was late at the start of last school year.

CMS offers a Here Comes the Bus app that’s designed to help families know when their buses will arrive. It worked well for many families on the first day, but the district said some newcomers and families who had changed their information had problems.

CMS is second to Wake in enrollment but does more busing than any other district in North Carolina. That’s partly because of its increasing reliance on magnets and other school choice options, which require buses to travel longer distances to pick up smaller groups of students. The district opened three new schools this year and added magnet options at many others.

This year CMS expects its buses to travel about 125,000 miles a day, with 33,000 stops each morning and afternoon.

Because of that demand, the district perpetually struggles to hire enough drivers. Even after offering a $250 recruitment bonus for employees who referred “good people that we know can pass the background check, the drug testing and the driving portion of this process,” as transportation director Adam Johnson put it, CMS started the year with 66 driver vacancies. That requires supervisors, mechanics and substitute drivers to fill in.

CMS hopes to have 40 to 50 people attend a September driver training class. However, Russ said CMS continues to offer noncompetitive wages, which leads to some drivers jumping to Charlotte’s CATS system after they get their commercial license.

Bus delays are normal for the first few days, though it’s not clear how this year’s snarls compare with previous years. Johnson, who is new to the job, warned families at an Aug. 18 news conference to expect some snarls.

“As you pack lunch boxes and you pack your book bags, pack your patience for the first few days and first few weeks,” Johnson said. “Just give us time and we’ll get it right for you.”

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday night he was pleased with the improvement, but “Day 2 introduced a number of new complexities” as new students showed up at bus stops.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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