It's been a disastrous start to the school year for the Broward County school bus system – and the district's superintendent claims says sabotage is part of the problem. Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie and bus drivers Sheila Williams and Essie Myrick spoke with NBC 6 South Florida about the issue.
The superintendent of Broward Schools says acts of sabotage by union workers in retaliation for his attempts to reform the district's transportation department may be behind the recent issues with school bus service.
Superintendent Robert Runcie claims the district is besieged by widespread nepotism, excessive absenteeism, possible payroll theft and an inflated transportation budget, according to a recent interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Runcie's allegations come just days after the new school year began and widespread problems with bus routes led to delays and some children not getting picked up or being dropped off at the wrong stop.
"We get reports of students not being picked up, students being picked up extremely late, we have buses arriving at schools with no students on them," Runcie said Wednesday. "We need to address those issues, and we need to address them effectively so that does not continue."
Linda Lewis, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Public Employees, which represents the drivers, said they just follow the routes they're given.
"We encourage our drivers to do as they're told,” Lewis told the Sun Sentinel. "They never have had anything like this occur in the past. One thing they don't do, they do not jeopardize the lives of children."
NBC 6 South Florida was unable to reach Lewis for comment Wednesday.
The district's bus department transports around 90,000 children on 1,000 buses at a cost of $90 million, some $40 million more than the state allocates based on the number of riders. While the average transportation cost per mile in Florida's largest districts is $3.30, in Broward it's $6.01, Runcie said.
"We're getting ripped off," Runcie said, calling the discrepancy "an immediate red flag."
Earlier this year, Runcie realized about $14 million in savings and cut 174 positions from the department's budget that were mostly vacant.
Outside Wednesday's school board meeting, Runcie told the news media the vast majority of workers are doing their job and said that for a district of its size, things are running relatively well.
"In a large organization like this it doesn't take a lot of people to wreak havoc on the system," Runcie said. "But I don't want to discredit the drivers or staff that work in the terminals. They're working hard."
More than 25 bus drivers showed up outside the meeting in protest of the accusations.
"That is a lie," Sheila Williams said. "I'm very much offended by that."
Williams said a lot of students are not being picked up because they haven't been routed because of the new system.
Runcie says the transportation overhaul he ordered is necessary to save money. He implemented a new system by changing routes designed to be more efficient.
Drivers say that's not the case.
"I even have schools and stuff that and stops and stuff that I don't even really know where I'm going," bus driver Essie Myrick said.
Williams said routes are changing every few days.
"I'm still getting kids added and then I'm getting kids taken off," she said.
Runcie would not say exactly how many drivers are purposely not doing their job.
He said one of the district's biggest challenges is that its bus fleet does not have a GPS system to track drivers and create visibility.
Transportation Director Chester Tindall claims the department is overwrought with problems, including excessive overtime costs, long breaks between routes, and absenteeism as high as 42 percent on some days.
"I had never seen this before, out and out fraud, waste and abuse," Tindall told the Sun Sentinel.
He said some transportation "specialists" were being paid $23.50 an hour to drive but were just sitting around.
Union rules require drivers to be paid for at least 6 1/2 hours regardless of whether their assigned routes take that long.
Lewis said the district has outsourced some bus routes to alternative schools, leaving less work for drivers.
Runcie promised to investigate the problems, and urged parents and schools to continue calling the bus hotline at 754-321-8840 to report problems.