The changes in school bus routes that went into effect last week are "a disaster. Assignments were made without regard to highways, bus routes were drawn without regard to one-way streets or streets that had been blocked off."
This comment could have been made by any New York City parent, school administrator or school bus driver last week. It wasn't. It was St. Louis school board member Peter L. Downs' description of what happened when Alvarez & Marsal, the New York city-based consulting firm that specializes in rescuing bankrupt companies, in 2003 helped St. Louis schools consolidate bus routes as part of an overhaul of the financially strained St. Louis school system.
Alvarez & Marsal came out ahead of 10 other firms in bidding for the St. Louis contract. In New York City, by contrast, Alvarez & Marsal initially advised the Department of Education on financial issues in 2005. Early last year it was hired, among other things, to restructure bus routes, using private donations. However, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein decided to extend the arrangement for a year, at a cost of $15.8 million without competitive bidding.
For $15.8 million, the Department of Education was to realize savings of $12 million just on restructured bus routes alone. The $12 million was to go back into classrooms to serve the 1.1 million children enrolled in New York city schools. Now it develops that the savings realized for this academic year at least will amount to no more than $5 million- not a small sum, but less than one-third of the windfall Alvarez & Marsal assured school officials would be realized by restructuring school transportation.
As has been much in evidence since last Monday, when new bus routes went into effect, chaos has reigned. Examples have ranged from ludicrous to downright dangerous for the child or children involved. A five-year-old was handed a MetroCard and told to take public transportation while her seven-year-old sister- who lives in the same house- had a seat on the school bus both girls had been taking to school since September. Two other sisters who attend the same school were told to board the same bus at two different bus stops. A seven-year-old would have to take three buses to get to school, walking on a street with no sidewalks to get to the first one. A 12-year-old would have to cross two busy highways to get to his intermediate school. A six-year-old who formerly boarded a school bus at 7:34 a.m. to get to his Catholic school now must catch the same bus a full hour earlier. Other children whose buses came at 7:02 a.m. now show up at their stops an hour earlier- if they show up at all. And two brothers have a choice of two buses to get to their charter school; walking to either bus route takes the boys past the homes of at least three men who are convicted sexual predators.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has relied extensively on private consultants during his tenure, declaring that they bring a fresh viewpoint to an established bureaucracy. He may well be right. However, no outside consultant can know the intricacies of the school system as well as employees who have spent years finding procedures and policies that work, if not all the time, then at least 90 percent. In the case of the school bus fiasco, the "clash of cultures" has reduced the efficiency of the Department of Education transportation apparatus by at least two-thirds.
Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have extensively lauded the savings to be realized by the changes in bus routes. We fervently hope that no harm will come to any child because of the route changes, but we point out that the consequences of any such incident will cost the Department of Education and the city a far greater amount.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has called on the Department of Education to scrap the entire plan, restore routes to the way they were and make any changes without input from outside consultants. We would also suggest that before any consulting firm is hired the Department of Education would do well to examine that firm's track record. The St. Louis school system paid Alvarez & Marsal roughly $5 million. After 13 months, the firm declared it had saved the St. Louis schools $79 million and improved student performance. Some parents, politicians and school board members, however, maintain that the St. Louis school system is still near bankruptcy, and student performance has not improved. Would the Department of Education have hired this firm under a no-bid contract if its performance in St. Louis had been thoroughly evaluated?
The safety and well-being of the city's schoolchildren, whether they attend public, private, charter or parochial schools should not be put at risk. We agree with the chairman of the citywide Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, Tim Johnson, who points out that police and firefighting are not privatized, nor should education be "farmed out just to save a few dollars".