Many tears were shed on the 17th anniversary of 9/11 in Montgomery Township, and the reason was not the memory of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America but rather a bus transportation nightmare involving a novice school bus driver in need of directions and better communications with the district and his contracted bussing company.
More than 50 angry Montgomery Township School District (MTSD) residents attended the September 11 school board meeting, which began with an opening statement and apology from MTSD Business Administrator Annette Wells, who said a bus driver had been removed from his position as a result of a two-hour fiasco in which a school bus full of kindergarten students that left Orchard Hill Elementary at about 4:40 pm —and was untrackable for 90 minutes during evening commute time on Thursday, September 6, one of the hottest days of the year.
Communication issues escalated as a few exasperated parents explained to board members how they flagged down and stopped the lost bus as it appeared before them on Belle Mead-Griggstown Road well past 6 pm.
The driver, a contractor with Irvin Raphael Inc in East Brunswick who only spoke Spanish, pulled over to the roadside and the parents looked inside it for their children.
The parents said an MTSD transportation employee who then arrived at the scene was not helpful or comforting to either parents or the children.
Jennifer and Jim Lafaman, a young couple who live on Oak Ridge Drive in Belle Mead, were among the first to offer public comments and collective pleas for operational changes, systematic management, and serious improvements in school bus transportation.
Armed with a notebook and pen, Jennifer went around to every member of the public at the meeting and asked them to include names and email addresses so they could be part of a drafted statement addressed to the board and MTSD administrators.
Jennifer detailed the first day of school experience for her 5-year-old son Jimmy, the couple’s first child attending kindergarten.
“It was a day of many firsts – Jimmy’s first day of life not in the hands of a parent, a family member, a teacher or friends as he rode the school bus for the first time,” Jennifer told the school board. “What we didn’t anticipate was having another first – it was the first time our child was missing and unaccounted for for over 90 minutes!”
Jennifer told the school board that on September 6 when the bus arrived to pick Jimmy up, parents noticed that the driver wasn’t able to speak English, “let alone communicate with my five-year-old…luckily I was able to give Jimmy instructions before I gave him a hug and kiss and put him on the seat.”
Her husband, Jim Lafaman, a graduate of Montgomery High School Class of 2002, recalled his days as a student growing up in the Montgomery. He told the school board that he and Jennifer, who grew up in Monroe Township, decided to make Montgomery their home due to Jim’s great experiences as a student in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But Jim said both 9/11 (2001) and the issue with his son’s school bus on September 6 were “two unforeseen terrible events that we couldn’t predict.”
“In all the years I attended (Montgomery) schools and grew up in this town, the way the day was handled by the school district 17 years ago was phenomenal,” Jim said.
“When my wife Jennifer was talking about how nervous she was about our son going on the bus for the first time, I told her — because I grew up in this town and because of that we moved to Belle Mead — that we will make beautiful memories here with our children,” Jim said. “But on the first day of school, my guard was down entirely.”
Jennifer said at 4:43 p.m. an email blast was sent from Orchard Hill Elementary to parents to notify them that busses were running 40 minutes late. She then gave an emotional account of the next 90 minutes ticking by as she and other parents were waiting and becoming nervous; some feared the worst had happened to their young kids.
“I was frantic so I called the transportation department,” Jennifer said. “There was no answer and I left a message. After another call my husband made, and being on hold with the receptionist for over 15 minutes, we spoke with the vice principal at around 5:45 – we understood the district was unable to get a hold of the driver.”
Ultimately around 6:15 pm Jennifer Lafaman was able to flag down the lost school bus driver and have them stop at Belle Mead-Griggstown Road “nowhere around the bus route.”
She turned into a savior for the children, who by that point had to use the bathroom or were covered in sweat from the 100-degree heat and/or tears from missing their families.
When she called other parents, they too arrived at the scene and were frantic in picking up their children at the side of the road.
Parents say at that point, and minutes later when a district transportation employee came to the scene, nobody showed any ID or asked the parents for identification as they retrieved kids.
From other parents’ accounts told to the board, communication was a major challenge later in the day and the driver appeared to be a native Spanish speaker.
“They simply asked parents so they could call out the children’s names before the bus turned around for Orchard Hill so the other children could be picked up….These are five-year-olds and ... these are our babies,” one parent told the board.
“Why is there failure on every level?,” the parent asked. “The only people who acted responsibly in the incident were the Montgomery Police Department, who parents had to call after almost two hours of this situation. Where is the ownership and accountability of this happening on the first day?”
Jim Lafaman added that an email the district sent showed “a lack of empathy” and no apology or explanation for the bus transportation failure.
Minutes later Board President Richard T. Cavalli took to the microphone, crying and sobbing, and told the Lafamans and all the other parents that “the district is so sorry for this.”
In comments after the meeting at 10 pm on September 11, Jim Lafaman said as a father and a resident who keeps up on news stories, he feared the worst case scenario for his children and several other little girls and boys who disappeared with a new bus driver that evening. Other fathers at the meeting said they too thought something criminal had occurred as they worried over the safety of the children.
Board member Ranjana Rao spoke about something being drastically different with the start of this school year. She too reported an alarming incident with the bus dropping her 12-year-old daughter off blocks away from home and her having to walk with a neighbor, another student, without being able to call their parents from their location.
Rao said she also has a son who is already in college, and in the past six to seven years she’s never experienced anything like this through his time in Montgomery.
Rao said her tween daughter got off the bus five blocks away from their home on September 6. “If I know she’s walking those blocks that is fine, but I didn’t as I live in an area with limited cell reception,” Rao said. “I asked her later why the bus driver was so confused and what happened. The kids said on the bus the driver followed a printed map with their route etched in crayon drawing, nothing electronic.
“If I get lost driving, I will look up the directions using my GPS / smartphone – how effective is the GPS system the busses have and is that automated enough so that the district or bus company can fool-proof it? I can imagine the anxiety a bus driver would feel if there’s 50 kids on a bus and the driver is lost on a local road. Is there some technology solution we can pursue?,” Rao asked the schools administration.
Tracking of GPS units on school busses raises security questions for the district, Board President Cavalli said. There needs to be precautions in place so a person who isn’t a district or community member cannot access information on where a school bus is or is going to.
“We will look at alternative things and this item is the chief topic on our September 14 OFF (Operations, Finance and Facilities Board Committee) agenda and we will be looking at some other ideas, while understanding any potential risks or long-term aspects of solutions,” he said.
Later in the meeting, the board and administration determined that after taking in several dozen public comments and suggestions and requesting more of the communication and feedback from parents via email to the board’s address, there should be a response ready at the October 16 school board meeting.
That night was also preset as the first public work session and meeting of the OFF Committee as it looks ahead to the district budget formulation and projects for school year 2019-2020, as the date was announced when the board met on August 14.
A father who explained that he and his family moved to Montgomery from the West Coast one year ago asked if the bus problem and lack of independent, district-operated busses were a problem of money or recruiting bus drivers for Montgomery Township Public Schools.
“I believe in community and the more we can integrate community to do bus driver jobs, the safer we will all be,” he said.
Cavalli added a potential financial ramification with the breakdown in the district’s bussing system and any targeted solution, hinting that there could be an item proposed for a referendum vote in Montgomery, as budget and capital plans develop, to allow expenditure for readdressing the bussing and (outsourced) contracts with bus companies.
“We’re going to be as proactive as we can as a school system while recognizing safety and security needs for our children,” Cavalli said.
One mother told the board an immediate next step is to have an independent third party come to Montgomery Schools and provide “an unbiased review and recommendation” on what fixes need to be implemented in the district and/or with school bus routes. She said there was a similar situation in the Millburn school district last year and after parents challenged the board to take action, they did hire a firm for evaluation and recommendations.
The Montgomery board discussed this idea and board member Phyllis Bursh thought it should be an item to propose immediately, if a board vote and a contract could be determined by the next meeting. She hoped the board could agree to a resolution to at least pursue hiring an independent auditor or evaluator (firm) of the transportation division at the September 11 meeting.
But members of the OFF Committee including Cavalli and OFF Chairman Charles Jacey said the OFF should meet as scheduled three days later, and in the meantime Superintendent of Schools Nancy Gartenberg would be able to collect data and see if any more change and operational plans could be proposed within the district.
The board can revisit an independent evaluation at an upcoming meeting depending on the outcomes.
Cavalli went on to explain the contracted services and the board discussed Irving Raphael busses in particular, but he added that over the years, many school bus drivers have traditionally been retired people seeking part-time work.
The federal government has changed regulations for drivers including the CDL licensure and requiring people to know mechanical components and how to fix a bus or truck engine if it broke down, Cavalli said. That aspect, he said, allows more people who do have commercial licenses to work for trucking companies that pay a high rate and not drive school busses for a local district. The market for drivers and the licensing aspect has shifted and the district has witnessed a changeover in several drivers.
Board member Amy Miller asked Wells and Gartenberg if the bus driver was interviewed and if he gave details of where he was for the 90-minute time frame.
Wells answered that most of the time he was on the radio to the transportation division as they tried to locate the bus, “but there was difficulty with communication in trying to find out exactly where he (the bus) was.”
On September 6 another bus driver became lost and when they called district transportation, the division was easily able to give them directions.
Miller followed up by asking at what point the decision would be made within Montgomery Schools’ administration, “knowing you can’t communicate with him and time is passing, let’s get the Montgomery Police involved. A decision should have been made for the safety of those kids,” she said.
Cavalli said he agreed with the thought and a comprehensive look into protocols and taking suggestions on the issues were vital moving forward. He added that including a third party review can help ensure “that we are doing things right.”
Board member Shreesh Tiwari said parents need to be included in the chain of protocol from the get-go now. Several of the parents who addressed the board on September 11 met outside the UMS Media Center after 10 pm that night and determined who would create a Google Doc or spreadsheet of ideas and how the group can collectively sent just one larger email to the board of education. They decided that the group effort by the dozens of families will be the way to urge the board to make changes.
Cavalli told the many parents in attendance, “If I couldn’t locate my young person on a bus, I’d probably not be very nice to be around. With this unfortunate incident the hope is that we learn from this. On behalf of our board and the schools administration and not only to the specific parents and grandparents but to all of the community, we apologize. What we can do now is to do our best to review district policies and procedures and we look forward to hearing all your comments tonight as there are probably things we haven’t even considered,” he said.
Christopher Wilson from Carriage Trail, a father of a seven-year-old son, told the board his family moved into Montgomery because a neighboring school system faced the same type of issues, “and we lost faith in their transportation officials.”
“We live in a post-Columbine High, post-Sandy Hook Elementary era, and the fact that a lot of these questions and suggestions raised tonight weren’t thought of ahead of time is really scary,” Wilson said.
“When a new teacher is hired they must perform a model lesson in front of MTSD administration to be deemed worthy of teaching in the district. It might be a good idea to have eyes on each driver when they are trying out their route – the board policy for transportation states that our kids will get home in a reasonably expeditious amount of time – but is it really reasonably expeditious to have kids get on the bus at 4:43 when school lets out at 3:50 p.m.? Shouldn’t we have gotten an email before then that afternoon saying kids would be really late?
“We have eyes at every school’s door and school safety and security is such a big issue, I find it imperative for the district to work with parents on this. I hope the board and administration can give this the attention that it deserves,” he said.
What became apparent to several of the parents at the meeting, who later referenced their portal for communications on the incidents on the Montgomery Moms Facebook page, was that the board of education seemed split on the proper course of feedback from the community and the best channels to achieve urgent messages and notifications through.
An exchange over “who to email” was initiated when board member Dr. Paul M. Johnson said he wants to hear directly from parents when they send any emails to the board and administration, and he told them to use for his own mtsd.k12.nj.us email address which is available.
Board member Minkyo Chenette also said she would like to receive emails directly from parents when any concerns and situations arise, as in the first days of school she was contacted directly about the bus issue and not through district channels by some fellow residents of Montgomery.
Chenette said she too has been through a bad experience with the bus transportation in the district and now, she does not let her two young daughters take Montgomery school buses to go to or come back from school.
Superintendent Gartenberg explained that Business Administrator Wells addressed the issue on September 6 to begin the meeting with a prepared statement as Wells is directly responsible for the transportation division.
“But I am responsible for all of it,” Gartenberg said. “These issues will not happen again and I am looking forward to hearing any suggestion you (parents) have and the nuances that we have not said or addressed.”