Parents in the deficit-ridden Wyandanch school district are fuming over erratic bus service they say has left scores of young students out in the cold when their transportation doesn't show up on time.
Chronic breakdowns in bus schedules also have delayed parents and guardians in getting to their own jobs while they drive children to school, they said. Shouting matches have erupted at recent school board meetings, with angry families demanding explanations for the lack of rides.
The system's administrators acknowledge the problem is widespread, with most of the district's 2,800 students missing bus rides at one point or another since September. Although service is showing gradual improvement, the district faces a $3.3 million budget deficit and lacks enough money to fully fix the problem, they said.
Wyandanch's seven-member board has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, where it plans to meet behind closed doors and discuss options for deficit reduction, which include potential layoffs. The board is under orders from the state Education Department to come up with solutions to its fiscal problems by the end of January.
Parents want action now.
"Every single day, the buses have been late — four months already," said Janet Villalta, 32, a real estate sales representative with three children in local schools. "They don't have enough drivers. So the children are waiting outside for 30 minutes, and it's too cold. It is very upsetting and disappointing."
Indiana Bumpers, 55, said her two grandchildren have experienced delays of up to an hour-and-a-half in bus arrivals on some mornings, and that much of her time these days is spent in calls to the district's central office seeking relief.
"I retired from my job after 32 years, and now I'm standing at the bus stop," Bumpers said this week. "Monday, I think we were at the bus stop 20 minutes. Today wasn't too bad, maybe 12 minutes late, so maybe there's a little improvement. But it was freezing."
Inadequate busing reflects deeper problems in Wyandanch, which is the poorest district in Suffolk County in terms of taxable real estate and family incomes. Eighty-seven percent of the system's students are economically disadvantaged, according to the state's latest statistics.
Last month, district officials announced that a budget deficit, originally estimated at $1.3 million, had ballooned to $3.3 million. An outside auditor hired by the system said that much of the budget hole was created by more than $1.2 million in overspending.
Mary Jones, Wyandanch's superintendent since 2014, traced the transportation problems largely to an influx of new students. To accommodate those students, the district rented a vacant school in the neighboring Half Hollow Hills district for 2018-19, but it does not have the money to buy an extra bus to service the new building, Jones said.
As a result, the system's fleet of 14 buses and drivers is overextended and sometimes runs late, especially when some drivers call in sick.
"We are looking for ways to improve this, and I think we've made a lot of improvements," Jones said. "Sometimes, traffic can be a problem —especially between Vanderbilt Parkway and Deer Park Avenue. There's always a tie-up there. But overall, we've been doing much better."
State Education Department officials who have taken a closer look at Wyandanch's finances since the $3.3 million deficit was announced have raised the question of whether the district and its board could be more careful with spending.
Jhone Ebert, the state's senior deputy commissioner for education policy, cited a recent financial report that criticized spending by Wyandanch board trustees during trips to education conventions. The report by the state comptroller's office, which covered nearly two years and was issued in August, noted that one trustee had traveled to 11 conferences at a total cost of $41,825, and that two trustees had been reimbursed for expenses incurred on days when conferences were not in session.
On Dec. 7, Ebert sent a letter to James Crawford, the board president, underlining the need to ensure that the travel and other expenses were "supported and necessary." The deputy commissioner directed Wyandanch to report back within 45 days on its plans to resolve the deficit issue.
Crawford initially told Newsday that he would respond in detail to Ebert's letter by Dec. 14. On Tuesday, Crawford said that a response would take additional time and that he would meet the Education Department's deadline.
"We just want to put our right foot forward," said the board president, who is employed as an assistant high school principal in another district.
On the issue of busing, Crawford added, "It is a major problem, and it's one we take very seriously, and it's time to get it fixed very soon."