WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — An outside attorney will investigate the transportation troubles that surfaced in the School District of Palm Beach County with the beginning of the new school year.
New Superintendent Robert Avossa said that he authorized the hiring of a third-party firm "to come in and investigate how this happened, who is responsible, and what we need to do to ensure that we are not dealing with these issues in the future."
Since school started on Aug. 17, the district has been plagued with late and overcrowded buses and widespread routing problems. Compounding the issues are such factors as school bus driver shortage and aging buses and facilities.
Avossa said that over the past few weeks, an expanded staff team has worked nights and weekends to overhaul Palm Beach County's more than 600 school bus routes. The district had implemented a new routing system before the beginning of the school year, which Avossa said left little time for testing and training.
In a press conference on Friday, the superintendent offered "a heartfelt apology to our parents ... and our students who are impacted by our transportation woes."
Palm Beach County has made progress in recovering from the busing debacle over the past three weeks. On the first day of school, the district delivered about 60% of its students on time. Now, that figure is up to about 85%, which was the district's on-time arrival percentage last year. Still, Avossa vowed to do better.
"That number is still unacceptable, and we are committed to improving that each and every day," the superintendent said, noting that the previous school district he worked for had an on-time arrival rate of 98%.
Mike Burke, chief operating officer of the Palm Beach County school district, said at the Friday morning press conference that the staff had completed the "major overhaul of our bus routes." The latest round of routing changes will go into effect on Tuesday.
The school bus driver shortage has been another focus. The district has been hiring about 10 new drivers each week since the start of school, with about 50 still needed.
The district is also working to replace old buses in its fleet. The school board has approved a large purchase of new buses and may approve more on Wednesday. Burke said that the district is currently receiving about five new buses every two weeks and is working with its vendor to try to expedite the delivery process.
"Our drivers have stepped up. ... They've delivered the kids to the best of their ability. Now it's time for the district to step up and do what's right for them."
— Superintendent Robert Avossa
The third-party investigation of the school-start transportation fiasco will be led by attorney Eugene Pettis, who reportedly has extensive experience working with large Florida school districts and governmental agencies.
Avossa said that he expects the investigation to take between two and eight weeks. It will cost up to $50,000, which would be equivalent to 0.1% of the district's $50 million annual transportation budget.
The superintendent said he felt that it was important to bring in an outside party to ensure that the investigation would be objective and would "hold people accountable."
Avossa said that Palm Beach County's transportation troubles have been ongoing for the past 10 years. "I believe it is a management issue; it is a systems issue," he noted.
During the press conference, the superintendent thanked the staff members who since school started have "singlehandedly handwritten 2,400 routes with almost 19,000 stops each day. ... That's a very complicated task that they've been asked to do."
Avossa also recognized the school bus drivers' response to the transportation challenges.
"Our drivers have stepped up," the superintendent said. "They have represented the district well. They've delivered the kids to the best of their ability. Now it's time for the district to step up and do what's right for them."