The first week of school proved to be a rough ride for many students in Dorchester District 2.
A switch from district-operated buses to a private company, coupled with changed routes, broken-down buses, new attendance lines and 538 more students in the district than last year, caused a lot of students to be late getting to and from school during the first week.
"We had a great opening week," Superintendent Joe Pye said at the District 2 board's meeting Monday. "We just had some glitches with the buses. It was nothing new. It just went on longer than we like. Where we might normally get 20 phone calls, we had 200 instead."
No one actually counted how many people called last week to complain about the private Durham School Services, which was hired this year after District Transportation Director Randy Strickland retired, but several school board members said they received complaint calls, and Pye said the district office did too.
"It's been a rough week, I'll be honest with you," said Dennis Boozer, general manager of Durham.
Most of the problems were blamed on poor communication. Boozer said the company has brought in more people to answer the phone and will notify schools when buses are late.
"When a bus is late, the parents get upset," Pye said. "We are used to an efficient, safety-conscious bus system. Durham sold us that they're that way, and we have no reason to believe otherwise. I'm going to be real upset if I keep getting parent calls."
Boozer met with Pye earlier in the day to discuss some of the issues.
"Communication has improved," Boozer said. "Today went smoother than last week."
In fact, district spokesman Pat Raynor said the district office fielded only one bus complaint call from a parent on Monday.
While issues with angry parents might be resolved, it was bus drivers who turned out en masse at the standing-room-only board meeting because of changes in the way Durham does business compared with the district. The district has about 125 drivers, most with a minimum of six daily routes. Some have been driving buses for more than 20 years.
Lucille Capers, a driver since 2007, was the only one to speak during the public comment time.
"Durham has come in and done a great job, but some of us are not used to the changes," she said. "It will take a few days. We are out there trying to do a great job. We just ask that you be patient. It'll all smooth itself out."
During the meeting, Pye asked Boozer about a recent mandatory eight-hour training session for which drivers weren't paid. Boozer said drivers knew the training was part of the hiring process.
"Why would they have training and ask drivers to come eight hours and not pay them? We are going to be talking about that," Pye said after the meeting.
District Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke confirmed that the drivers were paid their hourly rate for training last year.
"We promised (the drivers) things would be even or better than they have been (with the switch to Durham)," Pye said after the meeting. "We told them there would be a lot of changes, but we'd do all we could to protect them."
He promised that he and Duke, whom he has appointed as the liaison between the district and Durham, would meet with drivers without Durham representatives to hear their complaints, which also include having to turn in bus keys at the end of the day, and other business-type issues.
"Durham runs it like a business," Pye said. "We run it like a family."
Drivers were happy to hear of Pye's concern.
Thomas Flynn, who has been driving for the district for five years, said he was concerned about how Durham is running things. "That's why a lot of us came tonight," he said. "And Mr. Pye said he would work it out. We're pleased with that."
Pye said he will see to it.
"Something is going to get done, there's no doubt about that," Pye said. "At the next board meeting, I want to be able to tell people how wonderful Durham is."
Parents with questions or complaints about Durham School Services are asked to call the company at 873-6196. If they can't get through, they should call their child's school. If that doesn't work, they should call the district office at 873-2901.