Today was the first day of school for Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie too.
It was the first opening day in South Florida for the Runcie, the Chicagoan who was hired in the fall to take over the district. And to say it was a rough ride is an understatement.
Over the weekend, thousands of parents stood in line across the district for hours in the hot sun because they hadn't received bus assignments for their kids. Today the information is sketchy, but it's clear after talking with several parents that serious problems persist.
It's so bad that Runcie announced that a hotline was created for those who continue to have problems. The number: 754-321-4480. I just called that number and was put on hold and was given the message "all agents are currently helping other customers. Your call is very important to us, please hold for the next available agent." Agent, huh? A minute later it rang again and ... I got the same message. Another minute, it rang again, this time over and over again until the call was terminated into busy signal and cut off to the operator: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and call again ...".
How's that for customer service? Thankfully my kids don't ride the bus. But I spoke with parents who waited for hours this morning for the bus. One father of a 12-year-old told me his son didn't get home from school until after 6 p.m. -- about the time he was watching my report on TV.
Understand the transportation department was a place of special emphasis for Runcie, where he promised to cut the budget while improving efficiency. He brought a friend from Chicago, Chester Tindall, down to do the job -- and numerous sources inside the department say the experiment has been an unmitigated disaster.
They say Tindall is autocratic, a bully who tells people he answers to no one but Runcie and the governor. Long-time transportation employee and erstwhile whistleblower Mark Corwin described the current state of transportation department as "utter confusion." He said there's a shortage of buses and it's nearly impossible to get parts for those that need repair.
Union reps, who represent hundreds of employees, told me the department is a "disgrace" in "chaos." But Runcie has promised it's being run more efficiently now that he and Tindall have taken charge.
So the start of this school year was a bit of a test for the Runcie, Tindall and the transportation department. A place where the pudding would meet the proof. And in that class, well, according to the scene playing out at the transportation over the weekend, they all failed in historic proportions. But you wouldn't know that talking to Runcie. Today at a press conference he acknowledged there were problems but downplayed them, saying that a little over 800 families attended an "open house" over the weekend. The union has a different way of putting it: It says 4,500 families sat out in the hot sun on a Sunday trying to figure out how their kids would get to school. Here's a little of the give and take between the superintendent and me at the press conference.
NORMAN: You put in your own person from Chicago [in charge of the transportation department]?
RUNCIE: We changed our leadership and we’ve had improvements there ... we upgraded to new routing technology that will help us to be a lot more efficient.
NORMAN: That didn’t work?
RUNCIE: Well, it did work. That’s not what I said.
NORMAN: The new routing equipment was supposed to make you more efficient.
RUNCIE: Correct and it has and it will continue to make us more efficient.
That's right. Runcie said the department was more efficient despite the breakdown on bus routes. He continued.
RUNCIE: I’m very confident where we are we’re moving forward the issues are being addressed and have been addressed … I’ve been to about eight schools today I haven’t seen any significant issues around transportation.
NORMAN: The union said it was 4500 families that were affected by the voucher issue this weekend. Is that a correct figure?
RUNCIE: I can’t really comment on that figure but let me turn it over to Maurice Woods, our chief strategy and operations officer who may have more information at this time.
Enter Maurice Woods, another Chicago transplant that Runcie brought down to Broward. He was hired, oh, about a month ago.
MAURICE WOODS: As it relates to the accountability, my name is Maurice Woods and I’m the chief strategy and operations office and I take full accountability. The operations department reports up to me and it’s my accountability to make sure they execute.
He's been here a few weeks and he's going to take full responsibility for the transportation debacle? I wanted to ask Woods if he was wearing a flack jacket while trying to take a bullet for his boss.
WOODS: The routing software has improved our efficiency … our opportunity in the area we’re looking to improve in going forward was really the communication around some of the delays that occurred because of the new software. So it’s communication and it’s the processes that we’re looking to improve. In the scheme of business on the daily basis we do make changes … it’s part of improving efficiency.
Read that a few times and see if it makes any more sense. I directed the next question to Runcie.
NORMAN: I’ve talked to numerous employees out there, they say they’ve never seen the transportation department in such disarray, so badly mismanaged? How do you respond to that?
RUNCIE: I would take a different perspective on that. I would say we are putting in changes that will help the district significantly improve transportation operations. When I came to this district transportation was $50 million over budget every year. That’s not a situation that we will continue to accept. It’s an area where we need to improve our operations so we’re going to drive change and a lot of change in that area to make sure we move on target to become one of the best run transportation departments in the country. A lot of people are going to be affected.
NORMAN: This week it appears it was the parents and the students who are being affected.
RUNCIE: There have been some impacts to parents .. you know we’ve have these issues in the past. These aren’t new. As I indicated with the numbers we’ve had before, we’ve had hundreds of parents that usually show up at open house to get information. … if someone moves into the district we don’t know they are going to be moving into our schools.
It could have gone on for much longer, but I was dominating the presser and my colleague Janine Stanwood had some important questions as well. So I wrapped it up and then went to talk to the man in charge, Tindall, who stood in the back of the room. You can see his reaction on the video, which was a "no comment."