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.

USPS quadruple fail

USPS screwed up part of my son’s birthday. My mother sent him an overnight package, but USPS failed four times:

  1. Took 3 days to deliver the overnight package.
  2. Demanded a signature even though my mother marked the “WAIVER OF SIGNATURE” box and signed appropriately.
  3. Claimed to have left a notice (that I needed to pick up the package personally), but in fact declined to do so.
  4. Never re-notified me that the package was waiting. I finally found out because my mother asked me about it. I was able to call the local post office 2 hours before they would have returned it as undeliverable.

Go to http://usps.gov and check on package EH45 2451 528U S if you want to see this incompetence for yourself.

I say privatize and de-unionize the USPS and let it sink under its own massive debt. And deregulate first class mail delivery. Of course, Democrats will oppose this because government largesse and union intransigence are their job security.

In case you think I’m being vindictive, de-unionization would be the biggest gift we could give the USPS as it would create a competitive advantage over heavily unionized UPS and FedEx.

Party gift bags: who invented that crap?

Every time my son particpates in a birthday party for a daycare classmate, he gets a party bag. Invariably it contains a #2 pencil, erasers, a piece of candy or two, and cheap, plastic junk.

Summary of inevitable outcome:

  • Plastic junk goes in the trash.
  • Bag goes in the trash.
  • We don’t have a pencil sharpener, so pencil goes in the trash.
  • The kid doesn’t use pencils. So we don’t use erasers. So they wander around his room for a couple of days before hitting the trash.
  • Most the time, the candy is nasty and gets trashed.

What purpose do gift bags serve?

So much for “it just works”

I was issued an Apple MacBook Pro at work today. We are about to deploy some Apple servers, and apparently server administration works better if done from a Mac OS X client.

Construction, aesthetics, fit and finish, and design seem more refined than typical PC laptops.

However, after I installed an AirPort update, I ran Safari and then installed iTunes. Safari crashed HARD. I couldn’t even force quit it. Because of that, I couldn’t even restart the computer. It just refused to close out the OS.

So I had to power the thing off by holding down the power button for 5 seconds.

Powering back on, I get this nasty error:

Yeah, that’s right, kernel panic! As in, “you’re gonna reinstall from scratch.”

One hour later I’m back up–after reinstalling from scratch! With some help, I learned how to hold down Option to force the equivalent of pressing F8 in Windows. I erased the old image and installed a whole new OS.

For all of Windows’s faults, Vista has never left me this stranded!

Greenwashing the Green Spot

A nearby gas station called the Green Spot recently opened. The prior owners (when it was a Mobil) had gas prices well above market, so I appreciate that the new owners charge the same for gas as everyone else.

But I had to suspend my gag reflex after reading greenwashing in my local community magazine (pages 24 and 25 of this 19MB PDF–yikes!). According to a quote they got from co-owner Alvaro Garza, “our mission is to reduce our carbon footprint by offering an alternative lifestyle…”

Specific examples of where carbon footprints aren’t being lowered:

  • They sell biodiesel gas, which has several flaws. Even if you could argue that these flaws could someday be resolved, the fact remains that current consumption of biofuels almost certainly causes more harm than good. For example:
    • Several studies show that production and use of biofuels produces more carbon emissions than just burning plain gas. (link)
    • It takes more energy to produce biofuels than they save, which in turn increases carbon emissions, oil importation, and our trade deficit. (link)
    • Biofuel production increases prices of food, starving the poor. (link)
  • They sell organic goods, production of which require more energy (carbon!) and land than conventional foods. (link)
  • The article’s feature picture depicts a Jeep Liberty SUV. In addition to being an iconic member of a gas guzzling class of vehicles, it has the worst or 2nd worst fuel economy in recent Consumer Reports small SUV comparisons. (The diesel raised it from worst to 2nd worst; several gas-engined SUVs with higher overall ratings got better mileage.)

    (This image stolen from Advocate Publishing.)

And it sounds like a lot of what they sell are carb-loaded snacky foods. Ladies and gentlemen, refined carbs are refined carbs. The refined carbs from organic sugar cane and fresh fruit juices make you just as fat and unhealthy (and ultimately requiring more carbon-intensive health care services) as the corn syrup in Coke.

You may think I hate the Green Spot. I don’t. It’s convenient, gas prices are finally fair at that location, and they have neat stuff inside. I want them to succeed.

However, I was brought up in a home where the breadwinner toiled for and was employed by a nonprofit. I work with a couple of nonprofits. I value nonprofits. They deserve our charity; supporting them achieves a higher moral purpose.

I resent when for-profits steal altruism for their own personal gain, and that’s what’s going on with greenwashing the Green Spot. Support the Green Spot where they provide a value to you, but don’t do it because you think you’re fulfilling some higher purpose. You’re not.