A photo of what appears to be an overcrowded Daviess County school bus went viral locally on Monday. A district official said Wednesday there have been overcrowding issues on the first day of school for years due to unexpected bus riders and other factors, and that while they try to avoid the situation it takes a few days for the routes to even out. He also said the alternative would have been to leave some students at school — with no notice to parents — for an extra hour or more.
Charlie Broughton, DCPS Director of Student Services, said there are always some issues with the bus routes at the start of the year. Not all families indicate their children will be riding a bus, while some students who don’t initially plan to ride start taking the bus as early as the second day.
“When we entered day one on Monday, we were expecting some surprises on routes,” Broughton said. “What we experienced Monday is the same we have experienced every first day of the school year going back for decades. There is a level of unknown on day one about how many students will actually ride buses. It wasn’t unexpected to have some buses and some routes that were overcrowded. It’s not something we wanted to happen on any level. If we could have avoided it, we would have avoided it.”
Broughton added, “Even when you make a tweak to try to alleviate the number of kids on a bus, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s going to alleviate it 100%. Because then on Tuesday, kids that didn’t ride on Monday decide to ride. We’re always chasing a little bit of that moving target about how many kids will ride.”
Broughton said they had bus drivers report to Director of Transportation Grady Cooper on Monday afternoon, with some saying that their bus had some overcrowding issues.
“So immediately we began investigating and looking at it — did kids get on the proper route that they were supposed to, those types of things — to try to see where changes and improvements could be made,” Broughton said.
He reiterated that it’s a process that happens every year.
Broughton said while a few bus drivers noted some overcrowding, no parents or community members went to the district with questions or concerns.
One parent, Nate Stallings, took to social media instead. He posted a photo and a 2-second video to Facebook on Monday. Both show several children standing in the aisle rather than sitting down, though many of the seats are blocked from view so it’s unclear if there are any open seats or if students could have squeezed a little tighter to fit three people in a seat rather than two.
Broughton admitted that he had seen that photo.
“What we saw was not acceptable,” he said. “It’s not something we want. We’re going to do everything we can to avoid it moving forward.”
Still, Broughton said he wished the concern had been taken to district officials directly so it could be addressed.
“There wasn’t a call to us to say ‘hey, we’ve got concerns,’ which we would appreciate,” Borughton said. “We want the same thing that families want — the safest transportation offering that we can provide on every level. We’re in this together. This is not us trying to hide things from them or do things that we hope they don’t tune in to. We’re trying to do the very best we can, and unfortunately we have some challenging situations where we do have real bus driver shortages.”
Broughton said for the route shown in the photo, and for a few others, the district didn’t know to expect that number of riders until it happened.
“Once it happened, we had to go one of two directions there,” he said. “You can say ‘sorry kids, X number of you are going to have to stand off to the side until we get a bus to come get you here in about an hour and a half.’ Or we can try to make it work, be as safe as we possibly can be given the circumstances, get those kids home, and then start making changes and improvements to those routes moving forward.”
Had they gone with the first option, some students would have been left at the school and there would have been no notice given to families that their child would be home significantly later than expected. If the student was able to contact their family, a decision would have to be made on whether to make arrangements for the child to be picked up or wait for another bus.
So, Broughton said, the district went with the second option. By doing so, they have ensured all children were home by just after 5 p.m. each day so far.
“There’s no winning in that situation,” Broughton said. “The default is always to try to provide the safest transportation possible. The bus driver, in many cases, is going to have to make a decision on the spot. Does he or she feel comfortable transporting kids if there are some kids that are standing — for either out of choice, out of necessity, whatever the case may be.”
Broughton reiterated they don’t want a single person standing on the bus, but said they’ve often had three students share a seat on the route.
He also noted that DCPS is now utilizing “bus stop” dropoffs where groups of children are all let out at once in neighborhoods. For as long as overcrowding remains an issue for some routes, he said it may only be for a short time at the start of the route.
“Maybe you’re less than a block away from dropping off 15 kids. So you know that as soon as you pull out of that school, you’ve only got maybe a quarter of a mile and you’re hitting your first neighborhood and you’re dropping 15-20 kids off,” Broughton said. “I’m not saying that was the case there, but that’s something they’re always having to weigh out.”
Broughton said the overcrowding primarily affected the afternoon routes. The morning routes aren’t necessarily overcrowded, but because DCPS is four drivers short the district is having to run multiple delayed routes, meaning some students are picked up as much as 2 hours late.
“It is usual and customary for the first few days of school to incorporate improvements in all facets,” a statement from the DCPS transportation department read. “Each day provides continuous improvement – day three and beyond will continue to be a reflection of that.”
Broughton said district officials understand the frustration families may be feeling due to the delayed start and the issues that are being addressed regarding transportation. He said they are doing what they can to make everything run smoothly and efficiently, and asks that families contact their school or the district with concerns.
“If we had attempted to go last Wednesday, what we experienced Monday would have been tenfold, and not just the overcrowding piece. … We understand that because we had to call off school last week, that we’re under a microscope now,” he said. “We embrace that to the point that we always are looking at areas that we can improve upon. Sometimes we don’t know of an area until it happens.”
As DCPS has been dealing with perfecting routes for their own students, they have been unable to provide transportation for Owensboro Catholic Schools students. However, OCS students can start riding DCPS buses on Monday.
A statement from DCPS reads, “This delay gave the DCPS transportation department the opportunity to adapt and perfect routes this week in order to most effectively incorporate those additional stops, ultimately allowing us to provide efficient transportation for all students we transport.”