CPS explains confusing start to school year

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COLUMBIA - The school year got off to a shaky start Tuesday when the Columbia Public School District sent a confusing phone message to parents on the first day of class.

But despite this rocky start, Columbia Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said this week was the smoothest back-to-school transition she could remember.

"We always know that the start of school is not going to be perfect," Baumstark said. "We're definitely gonna have some glitches and some logistical things that we're going to need to work through, but certainly this year it went a lot smoother than it has in past years."

Baumstark said on the first day of school, there were around 422 students that were not registered for a bus route. She said this number is pretty close to the usual percentage of students without a bus on the first day. However, Baumstark said CPS and the new bus company were able to resolve most of these issues, in record time.

"Any time we start a new school year, it is challenging," Baumstark said. "We have over 18,000 students, we are a very large school district. It takes a lot of coordination to manage the logistics of that."

Baumstark said employees from the district's new bus company, Student Transportation of America, are putting in extra hours to fix the issues as quickly as possible.

But for some CPS parents, the district's resolutions are not coming fast enough.

Rock Bridge parent Jill Fox said she is having great difficulty arranging for a bus to take her son to and from school.

"I have worked on getting my son in the database and assigned to a bus for four days," Fox said. "So far there have been 7 emails, 12 phone calls, and one entry by a CPS staff member directly into a computer while I watched. And my child still hasn't been added to the CPS database that uploads to the bus service at this point."

Baumstark said one possible cause of some issues is the recent change in bus services. In the past, CPS has used the services provided by First Student bus company. However this year, the school district made the switch to a different company.

"We really felt like based on the feedback we got from families, the level of service [from First Student] was not really meeting what we had hoped," Baumstark said.

Baumstark said when CPS began looking at other bus providers, the company Student Transportation of America made the best offer.

"After looking at their bid, we decided to go in this new direction." Baumstark said the school district had to "start all over" on the address data bank. She said because the district started using a new bus company it had never used before, it had to re-build the address book from the ground up. But, she said although changing bus providers made for some extra work, the trade was necessary.

Baumstark said most bus route related issues are a result of parents not verifying their home addresses.

"A lot of the issues we have at the beginning of the school year are really tied toward families that are new, newly enrolled, or have moved over the summer, and haven't shared with us their new address," Baumstark said.

Baumstark said the reason the school requires verification of a student's address is to prevent people from freeloading rides on the school buses, and using it as free public transportation. She said of the 422 students that did not have a bus on the first day of school, most of them had either changed addresses over the summer, or were new to the district entirely. Baumstark said verifying an address can take several days, and while that can be inconvenient, it is necessary in order to make sure the buses are used only by the people that are supposed to be on them.

"There's a process that has to take place," Baumstark said. "It's not always as simple as just making a phone call."

But Fox said verification is not the problem here. She said her main issue with the school district is it seems to just be passing her problem along instead of directly addressing it.

"I have no answers at this point, and several top level people at both CPS and STA are ‘working on it' but still haven't solved it," Fox said.

Fox said wishes the school would develop a more organized system for parents to verify their addresses. She said CPS should give parents more direct instructions on what needs to be done to make sure their kids have a bus to ride.

"My question to the school has been, ‘what exactly is the correct procedure to get a change of address put into the CPS database?"  Fox also asked, "Does the front office staff in all schools receive the same training so that they possess the ability to perform what should be a simple task?"

Baumstark said CPS is still working to fix the remaining issues from this week, and the district is working as fast as it can to find solutions.