'We need to do much better'

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photoTeacher Christine Saab hugs first-grader Anna Berrios, 6, during the first day of school at Silver Hill Elementary School.

Superintendent Margaret Marotta and the owner of North Reading Transportation have apologized for the bus delays and lack of communication that marred the first day of school last week.

“The last few days have been unacceptable,” Marotta said at last Thursday's School Committee meeting that was packed with residents. “I am very aware that we need to do much better.”

“I apologize for my errors,” said John McCarthy, owner of North Reading Transportation, also known as NRT.

For many years, Haverhill students were transported by Coppola Bus Co. That changed when NRT recently purchased the assets of Coppola.

The usual scene of students smiling as they arrive at school and are reunited with friends was, in many cases, replaced by frowns last week as children and parents were confused by the busing problems.

After taking over for this school year, NRT changed bus routes that had been in place for years.

“Why did you change the routes?” City Council President John Michitson asked at last week's School Committee meeting.

McCarthy, the NRT owner, said several buses had been overloaded. Most school buses, he noted, are limited to 88 passengers.

The new routes were organized by NRT’s computer software.

“What is the objective of the software?” Michitson, an electrical engineer, asked. McCarthy said the company wanted to eliminate overloading.

He pointed out that Massachusetts law forbids the overloading of school buses.

“It’s a crime,” McCarthy said.

Michitson and others criticized NRT for making the route changes only a few days before the first day of school.

Megan Schnaible, president of the Bradford School PTO, said parents were not informed of the route changes. Buses were 10 to 35 minutes late in many instances, she said.

“We expected proper communication,” Schnaible said.

Another change was the policy for transporting Haverhill High School students. In past school years, high school students living a mile and a half or more from the school could take the bus.

The new policy limits the service to those who live two miles or more away from the school.

“We need our buses,” said Accalia Abreu, a Haverhill High sophomore who lives on Pilling Street, about a mile and a half from her school.

She also decried the lack of communication from the administration.

“Our parents had to call and call and call and got no answers (about busing problems),” she told the School Committee. She noted that during the winter, local sidewalks are often not plowed, so students have to walk in the streets.

Teachers advised students to “put on sneakers,” Abreu said.

“I had no idea of this bus change,” said Charles Nowell, a single father who lives with his son on Temple Street.

Nowell said he works two full-time jobs, 75 hours a week. He said his son, a Haverhill High School senior, is going to have to get up at 5 a.m. to get to school on time. Nowell also noted that these days, most students carry backpacks filled with books. He estimated the weight of his son’s backpack at 40 pounds.

Cristina Figueroa, mother of an eighth-grader at Hunking Middle School and a third-grader at Pentucket Lake School, said she learned about her younger child’s transfer to Pentucket Lake while chatting with people as she shopped at the supermarket a few weeks ago.

“I had no notification,” she said.

Furthermore, she said, her child’s transportation to before- and after-school programs has been eliminated.

Her job will not allow her to give her child a ride to those programs.

“Unless I’m a clone, I can’t do that,” Figueroa said.

Many parents have complained about their children not arriving at their bus stops at the expected time after school.

“My husband has been home all week following buses,” said Laurie Moran.

McCarthy said he is willing to provide two more buses to transport high school students if the city will also agree to contribute two buses. He also said installing a new GPS device in each bus will prevent problems.

School Committee member Scott Wood said there was “no excuse” for what happened on the first day of school.

Mayor James Fiorentini, chairman of the School Committee, said he could not recall problems of a similar magnitude occurring during the many years that the Coppola company transported students.

Diane Connelly, principal of Pentucket Lake School for many years who is now helping out at Golden Hill School, injected a note of optimism into the discussion.

By 3:30 p.m. last  Thursday, she said, every bus had left Golden Hill School, with students headed safely home.

McCarthy and Marotta both promised to fix the busing problems.

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