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Council to review school transportation

Parents, councilors seek answers from BPS

Catherine McGloin

City councilors agreed to hold a hearing on Boston Public Schools student transportation, after parents raised concerns about equity and student safety.

The hearing, proposed during the Nov. 28 weekly city council meeting by Councilors Lydia Edwards and Michelle Wu and later committed to by all councilors present, including Michael Flaherty and Timothy McCarthy, who both raised their concerns over the issue during the meeting, will seek to get answers from BPS on the management of the school transportation system.

“There’s a real concern about how we’re moving or how we’re allowing kids to be moved around, based on where they’re going to school and where they live,” said Edwards, “and that’s an equity issue.”

Quarreling between parents in District 1, whom Edwards represents, prompted her to act on this issue, she said. Some want their children to be placed on BPS-run school buses, while others feel their children are being kicked off the buses to make room.

One of these parents was Tara Shea, whose daughter, a seventh-grader at Boston Latin School, takes the school bus five days a week along I-93 South to and from their home in the North End.

Shea told the Banner that having safe, reliable school transportation played a big role in her decision to send her daughter to the exam school in Fenway, and she was reassured when BPS sent her a letter this September confirming her child’s seat on the bus for the upcoming school year. She soon became concerned.

“What I witnessed was children — two seventh-grade boys — left behind at the bus stop because the bus was too full, [and] kids standing on the bus or sitting in the aisle because there weren’t enough seats,” said Shea. “This was just plain, black-and-white unsafe.”

While the situation has improved since the start of the year, Shea said she is worried that with the weather worsening, the service will be inconsistent and her child will be left with no way to get to school, other than to use the equally unreliable city public transit system.

“This is one stress parents at BPS schools shouldn’t have,” said Edwards. “You should be able to know your kid is going to be safely delivered to school.”

Conflict

Shea’s issue is not with other parents, she said, although she is aware that tensions in the neighborhood exist, with families fighting to make sure each child who needs a seat on a yellow bus is granted one. “This is not about kicking other kids off the bus,” she said. “I don’t want to see other families suffer, but BPS has to help.”

The hearing will not focus solely on students in Edward’s district, which includes East Boston, the North End and Charleston.

“When I pull back, we can’t afford to have just a District 1 conversation,” said Edwards, “and that’s why I’m inviting my colleagues to talk about it as a citywide issue, beyond the numbers, beyond the budget, but about how we’re moving our kids around.”

Broadening the conversation even further, Wu suggested that the issue has wider economic implications for students who work part-time to support their family’s income but cannot rely on school buses to get them in and out on time.

“This is way bigger than even just getting to particular schools in parts of the city. It’s really about an economic situation that is exacerbated into multiple generations,” said Wu. Her office spent the summer researching students’ travel patterns. The findings, along with policy suggestions, will be published in a report that she hopes will coincide with the hearing, she said.

The purpose of the upcoming hearing is to learn more about BPS operating decisions, including the criteria for choosing which students are eligible for a seat; discuss any best practices in running the school transportation system; and analyze opportunities for private and public partnerships that might help ease traffic burdens caused along some routes by the influx of yellow buses on the roads around school start and end times.

The rules

According to BPS official guidelines, no high school student in grades 7-12 is eligible for yellow bus transportation. However, special dispensation may be granted on a case-by-case basis for seventh- and eighth-graders whose commute takes longer than an hour and includes at least two transfers.

BPS representatives told the Banner that this information is communicated at the beginning of the school year in publications that are shared with parents or guardians.

This is not Shea’s experience, however.

“BPS has not communicated effectively to parents with older kids about what they’re entitled to,” she said. Following dozens of calls and unanswered emails to BPS staff, Shea said, “It’s unfortunate that we have to have a hearing to help us and to get BPS to respond.”

Pulling punches

McCarthy is also keen to get some answers from BPS. “Any time I hear BPS transportation I never dodge the opportunity to take a shot at them,” the councilor said. He questioned the siting of the BPS bus yard in the Readville section of Hyde Park, the southern tip of the city.

“It still makes no sense to me why 300 plus buses roll through Hyde Park, roll through [Roslindale], roll through Mattapan to get throughout the rest of the system,” said McCarthy, councilor for District 5. “I still haven’t got a great answer from BPS on why all buses remain in the furthest southern tip of Boston.”

Edwards stressed that the hearing, which was assigned to the Committee on Education, will not be about attacking BPS, but about learning from other neighborhoods, looking at ways in which they have tackled this issue, as well as ensuring all important stakeholders are part of the conversation, including the BPS and the MBTA.

Echoing her conciliatory tone, Flaherty said, “It’s not an easy process to weed through as we’re looking at school assignment and school transportation and looking at ways to save costs, but there’s got to be a more predictable and practical way to sort this out.”

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