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Ringing in a new year // Patience is a virtue for those on school transportation front

"Good morning, Pinellas County schools transportation, how may I help you?"

"Good morning, transportation, may I help you?"

"Transportation. This is Nancy, may I help you?"

The cheery good mornings sounded out over the constant background noise of 20 phones ringing as the first day of school opened Wednesday for Pinellas public school students. The operators on the phone bank, many of them volunteers, are the first line of information for the parents of the more than 55,000 students who are eligible to ride the bus.

The expanded phone bank _ the number is 547-7174 _ was implemented to help avoid the transportation chaos at the beginning of the last school year. Horror stories included students being left with no transportation, overcrowded buses and students left at incorrect stops.

Parents were frustrated because they couldn't get through by phone to the transportation department. Once they got through, many did not get answers.

To prevent problems this year, Michael Fleming, head of transportation, said the department created a permanent help desk, added three dispatchers, equipped each bus with a two-way radio, added 10 field coordinators to troubleshoot, added 48 phone lines, and improved training and communications between schools and transportation.

Between the good mornings and the ringing, snatches of conversation could be heard:

"Can you just bear with it until Monday?"

"They are sending a bus out there as we speak."

"Yes, ma'am, it's annoying, the number of buses that are late or lost."

Occasionally, one of the operators jumped up and scurried to the help desk or to dispatch, two of the other offices dedicated to getting kids to school.

Operator Bernice Zoeller hung up her phone and said of the caller, "She's not a happy camper."

Zoeller, however, was a happy camper. A temporary employee, she said she likes the job and talking to the people.

At times, she answered two or three phones as other operators ran errands in the transportation department at the Walter Pownall Service Center, 11111 S Belcher Road in Largo.

On Tuesday, she handled 277 telephone calls. Of those, 116 were to check for the correct bus stop or time, while another 65 were for general information.

From 6 a.m. when she started work Wednesday through 9:30 a.m., Zoeller handled 90 calls:

"Morning, transportation, Bernice, may I help you? . . . Okay, it's no problem. It's the first day of school and buses are running a little late. I'm going to put you through to a dispatcher."

In the cramped help desk room, five people sat behind computers and looked up route information for confused parents.

Like the operators on the phone bank, Elizabeth Sherman, who runs one of the computers, was cheerful and polite although she wondered why so many people leave such calls until the first day of school.

"It's 10 o'clock," Sherman said. "You have to figure, why are they calling? But you can't say that, you have to keep smiling."

The dispatchers across the hall have two-way communication with the buses. Their office, in which nine of them field telephones and two-way radios, was completed Monday, just in time for the start of school.

The dispatchers moved to the sound of ringing telephones and the crackle of radio transmissions.

"Yes, transport them to Tyrone Middle."

"Chris, this is Richard at dispatch. You got a driver there? Okay. I need one of them to cover Route 607 at Northwest Elementary." Pause "I know he ran it, but we're getting a bunch of calls. We need someone to go back and check it just in case."

Despite the constant phone ringing, district officials said the first day of busing went well. Sure, there were two fender benders (no one was hurt), a couple of drivers called in sick and some buses were overloaded. But the first day was nothing like last year, when the Pinellas school bus system slammed into problem after problem.

Fleming, the transportation director, said the district worked hard to prevent a repeat performance. Better training for employees who would have to deal with the public was added. That training included a session for those who volunteered to work the phone bank. The volunteers included School Board members Andrea Thacker and Linda Lerner, who worked the phones Wednesday morning as did Susan Hinesley; wife of superintendent Howard Hinesley, and Vyrle Davis, a retired area superintendent. Even district administrators themselves, like Fleming, are taking their turns.

Reviews of the new system were mixed.

Gwendolyn Hewitt called to find the location of her daughter's bus stop for Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport.

"I was very satisfied," Hewitt said. "I'd appreciate it if it was a little bit closer, but i understand they don't have one."

However, Annette Fugate had a bad experience.

Fugate said she called Tuesday to find out the route, stop and time for her son's ride to Pinellas Park High School. Fugate said she was told they were busy and would call her back. That did not happen, so Fugate said she called again Wednesday.

She was again told she would get a call back and this time, she did. The trouble was, it wasn't until after she had found a ride for her son. She will find out this morning if the information is correct.

"It was really inconvenient for me," Fugate said.