As school opens, buses are in the spotlight; Johnson notes fixes to times

The Freeport Street bus yard used by the Boston Public Schools, a source of congestion on Dorchester Avenue and of frustration among neighborhood residents, appears here to stay.

The school district’s bus czar, Carl Allen, noted that the property is one their largest yards. Another is located on Hyde Park Avenue in an all-industrial area that is less congested with traffic.

“I kind of think of that Dorchester Ave. as a pain in my neck because it’s hard for me to get the buses out on time, because of the bottleneck,” he said. “But it’s tough to find space in the city. We have a space now that works in terms of the neighbors. I’m sure there are some that aren’t so happy that there’s 250-odd buses there.”

Allen said he was sympathetic to their concerns. “But again, it’s like we’ve got put them somewhere and they’ve got to run when the schools are scheduled,” he told the Reporter.

Scheduling is the priority this week, with the first day of school slated for today. Buses were consistently late last fall – 35 percent, according to the district’s own account – to the chagrin of Mayor Thomas Menino and parents of students.

Superintendent Carol Johnson joined Allen at a roundtable with neighborhood newspaper reporters last week to lay out improvements they say they’ve made to their transportation network.

Johnson said she participated in some “dry runs” of routes, and she was “very pleased” with the results, which led to buses coming in on time or early. “If we don’t get transportation right, the rest of the school day is impacted tremendously, so we have to get it right,” she said.

Allen said the district ran 200 buses during the summer school months, and worked with the bus company and its drivers to “build more intelligence” into the electronic map system they have.

They’ve ended up adding 10 percent to scheduled times from the last school year. Last year, buses had to arrive 10 minutes before the bell rang; this year they’re looking at 15 minutes, which also allows students to partake of the universal breakfast program.

“That just gives a bigger window for buses to arrive in the event that there is some unforeseen delay,” Allen said while also noting that the department has focused on improving “customer service.” A newly hired manager will be dedicated to overseeing staff and a call center with connections to the mayor’s constituent hotline, he added.

Principals also have a dedicated line they can call 24 hours a day and seven days a week. In the evenings, the line goes to Allen’s cell phone “so that principals can always reach somebody,” Allen said. “So if there’s a missing student that comes to our attention late at night, I’m always available.”

Johnson noted that the department provides transportation not just to public school students, but also to Catholic schools, charter schools, and private schools. Homeless students, who could be in a shelter in another city, like Quincy, are bused to the school they were going to before they lost their housing.

Johnson also said she plans to come back to the school committee with options for overhauling the student assignment process. Menino, in this year’s state of the city address, pledged a revamp would be in place for next year.

Johnson said administrators have spoken to more than 2,300 families during the public comment period, and they hope to bring forward three or four options. Some parents want “lots of choice” in choosing a school, while others want options closer to home. “I think that’s sort of the tension that exists,” she said.

Johnson recalled that she had proposed going to five school assignment zones from the current three. She noted that Allston/Brighton was kept as its own community in the proposal, but residents felt they were too isolated. On the other hand, she said, East Boston parents did not want to have their students bused out of the community.

Johnson said she had a father call her earlier in the summer, after his child had been assigned to the Burke High School. “He may live across the street, but for whatever reason he doesn’t want his kid to go there,” she said. What he wants me to do is not just have a neighborhood choice; he wants to know what other choices he has.”

An hour before the roundtable, the Boston Teachers Union held a press conference to offer a proposal in an attempt to “break the logjam” of 27 months of negotiations between school administrators and union officials. A state mediator has been dispatched to help resolve the discussions.

Richard Stutman, the head of the union, said members are offering to compromise in performance evaluation and salary. “Our teachers want some certainty,” he said. “We’re in Year 3 now.” Stutman said the union would forfeit some salary dollars – worth $8 million to $10 million – in order to cover the hiring of full-time nurses to cover for absent ones, licensed social networks, and a reduction in class size in grade 6 and grade 9 classrooms.

Stutman also said the union wants to see the state’s version of performance evaluation contract language, instead of the city’s version. The state version is “more sophisticated,” he said.

Asked about the union proposal, Johnson told the roundtable, “I wish that he had spoken to me beforehand, but that’s okay.”

She called the state version of the performance evaluation language “cumbersome,” but added that she wanted to see the proposal first before commenting further.