The Board will vote on Wednesday evening on a revised set of Transportation Standards for 2012-2013. We can't say what those revised standards will be exactly - they have yet to release the final version. They will undoubtedly vote to approve - they always do. But what will they approve? Even they don't know. This comes after the Board already adopted transportation standards for the coming school year. How did we get here? It's an ugly, ugly story.
Last year, in February, Seattle Public Schools adopted new Transportation standards that significantly changed the way yellow buses brought students to school. The new standards included very different transportation zones, discontinued transportation for some, widespread use of community stops, larger walk zones around schools and greater walking distances to bus stops. It would put some additional burdens on families but, on the other hand, promised bus rides of no more than 25 minutes and savings of about $4 million.
The Transportation Department, to their credit, did a lot of community outreach to inform people about the changes. This outreach included information on the District web site, community meetings, and kid mail. They accepted and incorporated a good deal of public input into their plan, but only at the detail level. The basic structure moved forward.
The new Transportation Plan was widely regarded as what had been long promised and necessary. While it did reduce or remove service for some folks, it appeared to be a comprehensively thought-out plan with fairness, efficiency, and significant cost savings. They got it in front of the public well ahead of the board vote. This was the best job the Transportation Department had ever done before on a revision of the transportation standards.
So what went wrong?
The trouble began to appear in December when the Board Operations Committee first gets word that the new transportation plan would only save half of the money that they claimed it would save. On one hand, you might think that it isn't so bad to have saved only two million dollars. On the other hand, the District, in anticipation of greater savings, spent the money. Now, as luck would have it, revenues outpaced expectations so there was no dire cash shortage as a result of the difference between the actual and pro forma spending. But, just the same, what the heck happened?
A variety of explanations have been offered. Special program costs, increased enrollment, buses can't make enough stops to pick up enough kids, blah, blah, blah. In the final analysis, the real discovery was the inability to make a final analysis. The Transportation Department doesn't have the tools or expertise to accurately predict costs.
The Operations Committee discusses transportation again in January, as the District work progresses on the bus contract. No mention is made of changing the transportation standards is pursuit of savings. Things hadn't really heated up on this issue by January when the Board was focused on the details of the RFP. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Operations Committee January 24, 2012 meeting minutes:
Bus Contract Award: The timeline for introduction/action of this item is being moved to February 15/March 7. Negotiations are still in progress, so there as no information about vendors and dollar amounts. Items included in the RFP focused on improving safety: 3-camera video systems on all buses and shorter routes. The district requirement was to have 15% of the bus fleet using propane for alternative fuels; this conservative number was selected because the technology is not 100% developed. Board members expressed interest in the goal of reducing the number of buses, looking forward to two years from now with full implementation of the new student assignment plan and increased number of students walking to school. They also suggested that for the next contract there be an incentive built in to encourage on-time service and decrease no-shows as a means to encourage desired performance. The committee moved this forward for introduction February 15th.As you can see, there isn't a lot of urgency around savings nor is there any mention of changing the Transportation standards. This meeting was on January 24, 2012. Let's remember that the Transportation Service Standards for 2012-2013 were introduced at the January 4 Board meeting. The minutes don't reflect any interest in changing them to seek savings. They were unanimously adopted just a week after this committee meeting on February 1. Again, there is nothing in the minutes of this meeting that indicate any interest in changing the standards to reap savings. The Board introduces the Bus Contract at their March 7 meeting and unanimously approves it at their meeting on March 21 (emphasis added):
Transportation, Bus Contract Award – (Operations) Approval of this item will authorize the Superintendent to execute a contract with First Student for school bus transportation, for the school years 2012-2015, with renewal options for two additional years. Director Smith-Blum made the motion to approve this item and Director Patu seconded. Directors asked whether SPS is exempt from state tax and also the difference in the total contract cost from last year. Bob Westgard provided information on the 3% savings, noting that it is a per bus amount, but also noted that there is an additional 5% reserve and additional buses that were not in the previous year’s contract. Directors thanked Mr. Westgard for the work done to achieve savings on this contract. Mr. Westgard noted that the contract contains language that sets a cost cap. This motion passed unanimously.So as far as the public knew, transportation for 2012-2013 was settled. The standards were set in February and bus contract was set in March. There was no reason for anyone to think that this wasn't completely settled. The Board and the District made it clear that Transportation Service Standards had to be set before the close of Open Enrollment. They were set and Open Enrollment was closed, so this was a settled matter. The story should end here. The public story did.
But apparently this question was not as settled as it appeared. Things were happening behind the scenes. When the Board Operations Committee - now a Committee of the Whole - discussed transportation on February 16 they asked the staff to find $5 million in savings in transportation costs. This meeting came two weeks after the Board had unanimously adopted the Transportation Standards for 2012-2013. I'm not sure where they thought this kind of savings - about a 20% discount from the transportation contract - was going to come from.
From the February 16 Operations Committee meeting minutes (emphasis added):
Transportation update: Ms. McEvoy noted that Bob Boesche has agreed to chair the Transportation Task Force. Board members expressed the desire to reduce this year’s transportation expenses by $5 million; staff noted it would be hard to meet that cut for FY 2013 but probably for FY 2014. Questions around the budget reduction would include the impact on the community, acceleration of the student assignment plan and end to grandfathering ahead of 2014, and making very public how the district will be doing business differently. Board members asked that staff talk with Tacoma and other districts whose cost structure is a quarter of what Seattle’s is and build the public case.The Operations Committee talked about Transportation again in March, but not in a big way and without touching on any budget questions:
Transportation procedure update: Tom Bishop reported that the modifications to the procedure are just to bring special needs transportation procedures into the regular education transportation standards. The district is also trying to pare down the additional practices Seattle has been doing with transportation to bring current practices more in line with other districts. The Transportation Task Force being formed will continue this work, and this will come back to the committee in June. In response to questions, Tom said that the walking/biking timeline is for 2013 and will be part of this procedure.It isn't until the April 26 meeting of the Operations Committee that changes in the Transportation Service Standards are brought back to the Board (minutes not yet available). They see the Board Action Report (dated April 25) for the changes in the transportation standards, approve it, and recommend it for addition to the agenda for the Board legislative meeting.
From the Board Action Report:
This motion at the April 26, 2012, Operations Committee of the Whole meeting, after the Audit & Finance Committee reviewed and approved the approach to reducing transportation costs for the 2012 – 2013 school year. This item was recommended to be reviewed by the full Board.The public sees the motion for the first time at the Board meeting on May 2 and that's when all hell breaks loose. Since then, the Board has backpaddled like a kayaker going over a waterfall - with comparable success.
By telling the public story to the end and then telling the private story I've jumbled the order of this a bit. So let me put this back into chronological order with some context.
It is significant to note that if there had been no Board interference, the proposed changes presented at the May 2 Board meeting would never have appeared. It is one thing to say that the budget is a policy document and to encourage board involvement in the development of the budget. It is something else for the Board to arbitrarily direct the staff to find a 20% discount in Transportation on February 16, over two weeks after the Board unanimously adopted the Transportation Service Standards. The service standards are the policy portion. The time to look for savings was back in October or November when the service standards were being developed, not two weeks after they were adopted. Also, if the Board thought that the savings could be found in the contract (rather than the service standards), then why did they unanimously approve it just weeks after the call for 20% savings? And if they were not satisfied with the 3% savings that were negotiated into the contract, why did they congratulate the staff for those savings?
The Board was telling the public one story, that the transportation decisions were settled and that we got a great contract with a much appreciated 3% savings, while they were telling the Transportation Department an opposite story: make changes in the standards and the contract and find a 20% savings.
I think that could be some honest disagreement on whether or not this task assigned to the Transportation Department represents micromanagement by the Board or not. I think it does. Take a look at Board Procedure 1620BP. It tries to put a lot of constraints on requesting work from staff. It also says:
"Directors shall use the work session process to provide guidance to staff to help shape staff recommendations." That's where these changes should have been proposed. As luck would have it, there had been a Board Oversight meeting regarding transportation on February 8. There isn't anything there that indicates any call from the Board for the Transportation Department to go back and revise the service standards for 2012-2013. Those service standards had been unanimously approved by the Board just a week before.
So here are the facts as we know them: despite the fact that every public indicator was that transportation questions were completely settled and settled with the Board's approval and to the Board's liking, some members of the Board - acting in the Operations Committee of the Whole rather than during the work session when they should have, and acting on February 16, long after this sort of work should have been done - directed the staff to find huge reduction in transportation costs. While the staff were working on that request, the Board unanimously approved the bus contract with compliments for the staff's work to secure 3% savings. The staff completes the work request and their efforts first saw the light of day as a motion before the Board that was presented at the Operations Committee on April 26. The staff didn't present the work as a report, but as a motion before the Board. Then, less than a week later, on May 2, this motion is introduced at the Board legislative meeting.
Please refer back to the February 16 Operations Committee meeting minutes in which the staff work was requested. I'll repeat it here with different emphasis added:
Transportation update: Ms. McEvoy noted that Bob Boesche has agreed to chair the Transportation Task Force. Board members expressed the desire to reduce this year’s transportation expenses by $5 million; staff noted it would be hard to meet that cut for FY 2013 but probably for FY 2014. Questions around the budget reduction would include the impact on the community, acceleration of the student assignment plan and end to grandfathering ahead of 2014, and making very public how the district will be doing business differently. Board members asked that staff talk with Tacoma and other districts whose cost structure is a quarter of what Seattle’s is and build the public case.I can't help noticing that the Board asked the staff to engage the public. I can't help noticing that the staff completely skipped any public engagement. I can't help noticing that the Board was totally cool with that.
This was a typical fiasco for Seattle Public Schools. It was typical in all of the most classic ways:
- Leadership from the superintendent was completely absent.
- In the absence of management from the superintendent, the Board tried to provide it.
- The Board stepped over the line and
managedmicromanaged the staff
- The Board members who micromanaged the staff were the ones who shriek the most about Board micromanagement of staff. They actually did it as they were shrieking.
- The public story was in direct opposition to the private story.
- When you suggest changes the District tells you that things are set and cannot be changed.
- When the District wants to change things after they are set, it is no problem.
- When you suggest changes the District tells you that change takes a long time.
- When the District wants to make changes they can make changes quickly.
- There is insincere talk about public engagement.
- There is no actual public engagement.
- The staff and the Board are both perfectly comfortable with the total absence of community engagement, even on matters when they say that that engagement is critical.
- The resulting decision, which came through a dysfunctional process executed by dysfunctional personnel, was stupid and tone deaf.
- The decision was reversed without any transparent process just as the decision had been made without any transparent process.
- The solution to a failure of community engagement is an even greater failure of community engagement.
- The District reneges on the promise offered to students and families (a maximum 25-minute bus ride) in mitigation of the harm done to them (longer walks to school and to bus stops).
And we're supposed to just let it go because, after all, all's well that end's well and the District didn't actually move forward with the plan, did they? It's no problem that they were going to do horrible things, that they had every intention of doing them, or that they took the first steps to do them as long as they don't actually do them, right?