NEW HAVEN -- Superintendent of Schools Carol Birks and members of her team Wednesday gave a lengthy, but broad overview of the city's busing program and how changes that were initiated over the summer came to pass, until parent Candis White had enough.
"My niece is 6 years old and my sister is handicapped," White said, standing up to interrupt the school district's transportation director Fred Till. She said that, because there is no bus stop near her sister's home, a truancy officer paid a visit because her niece was missing school without reliable transportation.
"Your main concern is not the kids," White said.
White and about 100 other parents attended a hastily-assembled forum at Fair Haven Middle School Wednesday, expecting to get clearer answers on the district's transportation system after about two-thirds of the bus stops were cut over the summer to save millions of dollars.
After White shared her story, a number of parents -- who say they still don't have reliable district transportation two weeks into the school year -- began calling out their concerns.
Jasmine Reed said her son is severely autistic, and without reliable transportation the lack of structure is nearly debilitating for him. Reed said she lost her job because she was driving her son to and from school. Another woman, who moved next to Reed as she spoke, picked up where Reed left off; her son uses a wheelchair and does not have an accessible bus to ride to school, she said.
"I apologize," said Birks. "I'm surprised these were not resolved."
The reason for her surprise , she said, was because students with Individualized Education Program plans, should be specifically attended to. About 15 parents, who said their children have IEP plans, then followed Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph Lumpkin into the hallway.
"You have my sincere apologies if transportation routes have caused you anxiety and angst, because that was not the intent," Birks said at the start of the forum.
Birks said the district was moved to action by a number of inefficiencies in its busing routes, which had not been updated for eight years. She later said the district actually loosened its standards to meet state standards, without specifying for parents what those standards are. She told parents she recognized their frustration, but she was frustrated because her team had not done a better job of communicating the changes that the district initiated before the summer began, with most parents only learning about changes to their usual routes one or two days before the start of school.
Birks said that bus company First Student, is the entity that creates routes.
"We send your address to the bus company," she said.
Till said he acknowledges a greater need for district oversight.
"Moving forward, we know this information needs to be shared with the public so you can make adjustments," he said. "The routing system does not know things we know here in New Haven, like if it's a volatile area or there are sidewalk issues, et cetera."
Till also accepted that the district's target for eliminating routes "may have been a little too aggressive" and stops have since been added back.
The planned speaking program, beginning with Birks, followed by Till and then former city deputy transportation director and current school district COO Michael Pinto -- which included Spanish translation -- was derailed midway by the parents. There was an agenda item for questions and answers following the three speakers, but it was expected that parents write their questions down first, to be handed to Birks to answer herself.
Parent Crystal Herron said her own busing situation has been handled, but she attended because she worries about larger, systemic issues and unpredictability. Between bus routes and teachers, she said, many parents like her have concerns that the rug will be ripped out from under them on the first day of school each year.