WISD head apologizes for Jan. 8 transportation issue

Lack of drivers led to school closures

Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Scott Menzel apologized to the Ann Arbor School District community for the fact that WISD was unable to provide bus transportation on Jan. 8, which led to the cancelation of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti public schools that day.

Bus drivers had until 6 a.m. to report an absence, Menzel said, adding that it had never before been a problem. But that morning in Ann Arbor, 24 drivers and monitors were absent. For Ann Arbor service, four drivers and 10 monitors called off in the morning as well as 10 substitute drivers leaving WISD unable to cover all AASP routes.

“Normally, we’ve got really good supervisory staff who know how to move routes around and make adjustments so that if we have call-ins, we can still deliver the transportation services,” Menzel said at Wednesday’s AAPS Board of Education meeting. “We just did not have adequate time on a day that was extraordinarily cold. And we do not want to risk students’ safety and well being because a bus might be late, or someone might not recognize what the changes in the routes were. I think the district made the right decision in terms of cancelling school in order to insure students’ safety and well being.”

WISD Scott Menzel listens to concerns about transportation issues at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.
WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel listens to concerns about transportation issues at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

The call-in time for driver absences has since been moved to 5:15 a.m., which will allow more time for adjustments to be made for absences.

AAPS did not learn about the problem at WISD that morning until 5:49 a.m., and that late notice in turn led to a difficult situation for district parents, students, and staff, some of whom had already prepared for or were headed toward school by the time they were alerted.

Menzel said there were unfounded rumors about what why there were so many absences, including a possible concerted job action on the part of drivers, as well as drivers unhappy about holiday pay.

He said inaccurate reporting by Channel 4 further confused the public.

Menzel and his transportation staff tracked down the reason for the absences, and found them legitimate. Some had planned time off. Some were sick at a time when Washtenaw County had high incidents of the flu. Some couldn’t get their cars to start. And others didn’t have childcare for their children attending districts that had called off classes that day.

He said only four employees expressed concern about holiday pay.

On an average day, there are seven absences. The next day, 10 called off.

WISD is in its final year of a five-year contract to provide transportation for AAPS, and Menzel said it would have been counter-intuitive for the drivers to take a concerted job action at this late point in the contract.

“This really does appear to be a singular incident, one that was unanticipated and never experienced before, but one that we are now better prepared to respond to should it ever happen again.”

He said drivers have an extraordinarily difficult job, especially in Michigan winters, and applauded the work of drivers, monitors, mechanics, and others.

After apologizing for not having enough workers to provide transportation on Jan. 8, Menzel added that he’s happy that has not been an issue since, and that he’s confident WISD will be able to continue that service.

Trustees thanked Menzel for coming, and acknowledged the tough work of drivers, but expressed some concerns.

Trustee Christine Stead said she hopes that the district is not charged for transportation that day, and stressed the importance of keeping kids in schools.

When trustees Andy Thomas and Susan Baskett delved into WISD’s contingency plan that would prevent a reoccurrence of Jan. 8, Menzel explained that he is constantly recruiting for new drivers and subs, and said the improving economy has meant some drivers found jobs with better hours, while some moved on to better paying jobs as drivers at Ann Arbor Transportation Authority or Con-way Freight.

He said WISD can normally handle absences, but 24 was simply too many. And even that might have been manageable if he had an extra hour that morning to make accommodations, he said.

When Trustee Simone Lightfoot expressed some frustration with the way WISD has at times handled transportation at times, Menzel said that no matter what AAPS decides to do next with transportation, his goal is to successfully complete the year.

If WISD does in fact cancel transportation in the future, the AAPS contingency plan is to send out a message to parents saying simply that school is open, but transportation will be provided only to students who receive special education transportation services. AAPS is asking our schools to work with their PTOs and help our neighbors to get students to school.

It has been the practice of the Ann Arbor Public Schools to inform families and staff by 6:00 a.m. if school is to be closed for the day.  This time frame is followed so that staff, students, and parents are informed before it is time to leave for school or work. Many of the high schools students and staff leave their homes by 6am to catch the school bus or begin their commute to school.

On school days when temperature and/or wind chills are at or below -20ºF (20 below zero), the Ann Arbor Public Schools will be closed.

Our top priority is the safety of our students and staff. Being outside when the wind chill is at this level can cause frostbite in less than 15 minutes.

Here is a link to the AAPS safety section on the website where the weather protocols are stated:  http://www.aaps.k12.mi.us/aaps/schools/school_safety

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