Dallas ISD to worsen bus service and fix no problems

I have monitored Dallas County Schools’s and DISD Student Transportation Systems’s failures to provide effective transportation services, and I was an activist in the DCS shut-down effort. I have been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (link) and NBC 5 (link).

Regrettably, dissolving DCS has not improved bus service. DISD STS continues to provide shoddy service to students and parents.

Instead of fixing its problems, STS now wants to make things worse by regurgitating its failed hub proposal from last year. A school’s SBDM exposed this by sharing that DISD STS wants to “streamline” service. This simply means they will reduce service quality by having fewer stops. In other words, STS wants to make their poor service even worse!

It appears that DISD STS is using its on-time record to say it’s doing a good job. While an important figure, two things to understand: 1. Even if it’s on-time, DISD STS is failing in equally important areas. They are at the bottom of this post. 2. It is easy to manipulate the on-time figure. In the NBC video linked above, DCS is cited as having a 98% on-time record, but it is exposed as fudging that figure. Due to persistently poor performance, DISD STS has not earned my trust, so I want to understand more about DISD’s on-time performance before I can accept it.

Instead of making things worse, I want DISD STS to improve. This is my transportation improvement plan for STS:

  • Rational routing system, informed by data, that serves families well. Measures for success:
    • Year one goal: For the first two weeks of school, no more than one route change per week per route, then only one additional route changes for the rest of the school year. Year two goal: no more than one route change per route for the entire school year.
    • Shorter routes, with no route having more than ~20 minutes between the first and last stops (not counting the final destination).
    • Routes planned through route-planning software that has a record of success elsewhere and that has knowledgeable people running it.
    • Average distance between each family and the nearest bus stop decreases year-over-year as efficiencies are gained with other improvements. (This is the opposite of STS’s failed hub proposal.)
  • Effective communications that keeps customers (parents) informed. Measures for success:
    • Direct electronic communication with parents upon EVERY route change.
    • Direct electronic communication with parents EVERY time the bus is late.
    • Assure the bus route-status app provides timely, accurate data. (As a large customer of Tyler Technologies, DISD has significant sway. They can demand improvements. Also, some of the app’s problems are attributable to DISD’s failure to maintain accurate data in the app.)
    • Inform schools with timely, accurate information so they can still provide backup route communications.
    • Accurate bus-route information transparently communicated and kept up to date.
    • End the split between “correct route information”, which apparently only STS insiders get, and “obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained route information”, which is the data provided to parents and call-center employees. Everyone should have access to the same, authoritative route information.
  • Effective customer (parent) help. Measures for success:
    • Issue-tracking system that creates per-incident accountability and allows parents to see status of each issue.
    • Email address that feeds into the issue-tracking system.
    • Call-center employees have access to accurate data, not simply the same obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained data that parents can already see.
  • On-time performance. Measures for success:
    • First-day performance is on time.
    • First-day performance becomes a major part of annual performance evaluation for drivers, bus depot staff, and all DISD STS administrators. (IMPORTANT: Any DISD STS employee who is not all-in on first-day performance is not serious about his or her job. Advance prep, effective management, etc. will make for on-time performance on day 1!)
    • Buses run on time when there is a substitute driver.
    • Buses run on time when the bus has to be swapped out due to a mechanical issue.
    • Performance indicators for every route made fully public, which shows each route’s on-time performance and has ZERO manipulation of the data.
  • Buses function properly. Measures for success:
    • All buses receive a thorough review as the school year approaches, in time to address all functional problems.
    • Rate and complexity of bus mechanical problems in first two weeks of school are undifferentiated from the rest of the academic year.
    • Buses with fewer miles are assigned to the longest routes. (Reliability problems have a greater impact to longer routes.)

My expectations are informed by many examples of shoddy service:

  • Excessive route revisions. With two route revisions from last week (early November!), my child’s bus route has been revised around twelve (!) times since school started, with 8 revisions in the first two weeks alone.
  • Initial routing made little sense. The routes were bizarre and communicated via a haphazardly updated spreadsheet. (The spreadsheet itself was probably a good idea, but the haphazard updates killed confidence in that communication method.)
  • The roll-out of the bus app was ineffective. Even now (mid-November!), the app still has inaccurate and incomplete information for my child’s route. As of two weeks ago, the times were wrong and had been wrong for a long time. The route is now completely missing from the app, starting last week!
  • The first day of school, the bus was very late. It was 25+ minutes late on the most important day to perform well! It made no sense: my child’s route was largely the same as last year and had the same driver (and the driver is a great guy!).
  • In addressing numerous parent complaints, DISD STS demonstrated profound cynicism of its customers. To address many parent complaints about poor bus performance, in the second week of school, STS sent an employee to my child’s bus stop. The employee appeared to have no power to fix anything, so this was clearly a cynical move to shut up frustrated customers (parents). Had DISD STS been serious about fixing its shoddy performance, it could have done so with plenty of insights from its own data and from parent feedback.
  • Communications are haphazard and inaccurate. STS abdicates on its responsibility to inform parents of routes. It throws that responsibility over the fence to school offices. That is lazy, inappropriate, and a 20th-century model. To dig the knife deeper into school staff, STS has repeatedly provided last minute, contradictory information. Just last week, my child’s school staff had to sort out last-minute, contradictory route changes on my child’s route. DISD has all needed parent contact information and sufficient electronic communication tools, so it’s unclear why a obsolete communication system is STS’s primary method.
  • Performance is terrible when there is a substitute driver. It is routine for buses to be 20+ minutes late if a substitute driver is needed.
  • DISD STS declines to help parents effectively. On its Contact Us page, STS declines to list any email addresses or issue-tracking system. It just lists a phone number (hello, 20th century!) or a Twitter account that hasn’t been updated since school started! It wasn’t until a phone call with the transportation hotline a while back that I learned that there is a transportation@dallasisd.org email address. Without an issue-tracking system that parents can access, it’s easy for our requests to just disappear.
  • The staff at the transportation hotline is of limited usefulness. In several calls at the beginning of the semester, the best info that the hotline staff could share was usually the same obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained information I already had access to. If we wanted accurate information, the hotline staff had to put us on hold and manually reach out to the bus barns or some other office to get it. Even worse, the information we get sometimes differs on every call: the first week of school, between two parents and three calls, we got three different versions of my child’s route!
  • Buses had broken equipment on day 1. Just within my limited pool of east Dallas parents at my child’s school, we were aware of two buses with broken A/C. Extrapolate that, and it’s likely DISD started the school year with a profound number of mechanically defective buses! Are buses not reviewed over the summer?

I insist that DISD focus on fixing its many extant problems. By improving its operations, STS can give us the performance that parents deserve and DISD taxpayers are paying for, and without service-quality reductions.

Dallas County Schools bus cameras = profiteering?

My feathers got rankled: I heard from a motorist who got two $300 citations for being safe, prudent, and reasonable, all thanks to unreasonable use of school bus flashing lights and automated ticketing machines installed on Dallas County Schools‘s buses.

I fired off the below letter to my Texas legislators. If you are also concerned, contact your legislators (find them here) and Dallas County Schools (info@dcschools.com).

My letter:

Senator Duell and Representative Sheets,

Dallas County Schools has installed automated ticketing machines on its school buses. These machines photograph motorists who pass a stopped school bus that has its red lights flashing.

I am aware of motorists getting pointless $300 automated traffic citations, These are due to how Dallas County Schools bus drivers are using their flashing red lights.

In this case, school bus drivers are activating their red lights when departing or entering bus occupants are simply walking between a bus and a school. These pedestrians will not cross a road. Last I checked, cars don’t drive on sidewalks or across school lawns, so this use of red light flashers to stop cars on an adjacent road–where departing or entering school bus occupants won’t even go–is an abuse of power and disrespectful to Texas citizens.

This needs legislative attention for two reasons:

First, if the law requires bus drivers to use flashing red lights even when it’s pointless, the law should be revised. Drivers should only be permitted to use flashing red lights when students entering or departing the bus are actually going to cross the road that the bus is on.

Second, if this is due to Dallas County Schools policy, then this needs to be investigated by the legislature as an unprecedented cash grab. $300 per automated citation is egregious. This is 400% the cost of a statutorily-authorized red light camera ticket. And that begs the point: are automated ticketing machines on school buses even statutorily-authorized?

I realize we’re in tough economic times, but it’s egregious for Dallas County Schools to collude with area cities to set up unusually expensive traffic tickets enforced by a statutorily-unauthorized automated ticketing machines, apparently so that they can abuse motorists who, while being on the wrong side of the law, could not have possibly endangered a student: you can’t run over kids that won’t even be in the road!

Aren Cambre

Skepticism of the law

I’m not a Lawrence Lessig fan. He’s too radical, but he still had a great quote last year:

…I am a little surprised by the respect that non lawyers typically give the law. Because lawyers’ view is one of constant skepticism. We constantly ask and demand of the law that it explain to us: How does this make sense? And we never presume that we happen to have a body of regulation that makes sense. We always examine. Where it does make sense, we say good for the law, and we encourage people to follow it. But where it makes no sense, our perspective is that the law needs to be changed.

He only encourages obedience to laws that make sense. Later he wrote “Stop believing, stop listening, stop deferring. Feel entitled to question this system.

(Getting Our Values around Copyright Right, EDUCAUSE Review, March/April 2010)

This is refreshing. Usually, I see the paintywaist viewpoint, that all law deserves to be obeyed just because it exists.

No!

Law is just an approximation of right and wrong. It’s often off.

Americans were once required to return slaves, but it was never wrong to ignore this law and help slaves become free. Similarly, suppose 75 mph is safe on a road. 75 mph is illegal if the speed limit sign says 65, but it’s not wrong.

Left wing tripe

My church, First United Methodist Church of Dallas, has a Sunday school class afflicted with a radical left winger.

If you’re one of my Facebook buddies, you’ll remember this from January 9, 2011:

Wonderful, call a substantial portion of the electorate “stupid people”…

Now it gets more nerdy and nuanced. The same class now has this on its tackboard:

The point here is to get sympathetic liberals to hand-wring over military spending.

Except it’s a lie. It conveniently omits about 2/3 of federal spending!

Here’s a truer picture of federal spending:
(image source: Wikipedia image and article)

It’s more like 20% of federal spending!

Now, to be frank, while I believe in a strong defense, I am uncomfortable that the United States alone accounts for about 40% of worldwide defense spending. I’d like to scrutinize our defense spending, but I’m not going to lie about it with convenient numbers.

And I’m also not going to lie and slander in church.

Texas Senate Republicans violated own party platform

This is a great example of the stupidity of a lot of the Texas Republican Platform.

From page 9 of the 2010 platform:

We oppose any constitutional convention to rewrite the United States Constitution. We demand the Legislature rescind its 1977 call for such a convention. We call upon other states to rescind their votes for such a convention.

This is Eagle Forum-style, nut job paranoia. They fear that a 31 year old concurrent  resolution, calling for a balanced spending amendment, can somehow result in a runaway constitutional convention and rewrite the US Constitution.

No kidding. They really believe this.

Here’s the 31 year old resolutions: HCR 31, Regular Session, and HCR 13, 2nd Called Session.

Now here’s the irony: the current (82nd) Senate did almost they same thing: they called for a constitutional convention for a balanced budget amendment.

A balanced budget amendment is silly; it won’t fix anything because runaway spending is simply taken off budget. That’s what happened with Social Security and Medicare.

But it doesn’t matter. I doubt enough states will call for this convention. And while we’re waiting, the Texas Eagle Forum and Phyllis Schlafly disciples will have another dumb cause to rabble rouse over.