Charges of racism and Orwellian tactics are flying as the Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union fights a resolution passed by the city council that urges the public school system to install global positioning system (GPS) devices in its entire fleet of school buses as a safety and efficiency strategy.

Referring to the GPS systems as “contentious spy devices,” the drivers’ union maintains the devices’ real purpose will be to track the city’s bus drivers and further advance their portrayal as speeders and scofflaws.

Union President Steve Gillis added that the proposal is an attempt to tear apart the private collective bargaining agreement reached in October between the union and the school-bus-management firm First Student Inc.

“The GPS systems are being posed in Boston by city councilors who have for the last year been trying to do away with school buses and move back to local schools,” Gillis said. At a Nov. 18 press conference, school bus drivers reportedly called several city council members “racists” and “segregationists” because the city’s school-bus system was first adopted to transport minority students to predominantly white schools.

If the city council is really concerned about safety, Gillis told eSchool News in a telephone interview, it should use the money to hire human monitors who can stop fights and make sure students get off at the correct stop. Currently, the city has about 100 human monitors who help on buses with special-needs students. “A global positioning system won’t ever deal with a safety problem on a bus, but a human can,” Gillis said.

The city also could use the money proposed for the GPS systems to fix the city’s aging bus fleet, Gillis said. The city has 720 buses, and between 60 and 70 break down each day, he said.

“I don’t know if [the human-monitor alternative] does the trick. The [human] monitors are for on-board safety,” said Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., who in September introduced the idea of installing GPS devices in Boston school buses.

Tobin said it would cost $200,000 to $300,000 per year to outfit and maintain Boston’s school buses with GPS service. The city currently spends $60 million each year on student transportation.

He lauded the plan as a way to track and document the time, speed, and direction of buses to improve customer service and reduce complaints from parents. The devices also would be wired into the buses’ on-board computers so they could report mechanical problems directly to headquarters, he said.

The idea “goes back to earlier this year, in the spring, [when] the Boston Public Schools’ athletic director came to us and said there is a high number of buses that simply are not picking up students for athletic practice,” Tobin told eSchool News, adding that “in the fall, we had three parents call and say they couldn’t find their kids.”

The city council held a hearing Nov. 8 to explore the accountability, efficiency, and safety benefits of installing GPS systems in the city’s school-bus fleet. Tobin said the evening was overshadowed by the union leader’s claims of racism and Big Brother.

“I think it’s a tired old argument by the leader of the bus drivers’ union, and they are doing a grave disservice to their members,” Tobin said. “I support them on the bus-monitor situation, but I don’t think it solves the problem.”

Since he asked the athletic director to track problems with the city’s bus service, the school system reportedly has had 27 cases where the bus was more than a half-hour late or didn’t show up at all, Tobin said.

“The union is claiming ‘Big Brother,’ but this is not futuristic stuff,” Tobin said, noting that GPS devices are used by Federal Express, UPS, the Boston Transit Authority, and even in golf carts. “We’re talking here about kids. If you can’t find your kid for 45 minutes to an hour, it takes years off your life,” he said.

Boston Public Schools spokesman Jonathan Palumbo said the GPS devices would give district officials a tremendous opportunity to offer better bus service. In fact, a growing number of school districts nationwide are purchasing school buses equipped with GPS devices to increase student safety and help dispatch maintenance crews faster.

“The unit just sits there and gives me a lot of information. But No. 1, we bought it for safety,” said Jim White, director of transportation for Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Ind., which has been phasing in buses equipped with GPS technology as it retires old buses over the past year.

“We had two bomb scares, and [there have been] three instances nationwide where drivers have taken off with kids,” White said. Although security concerns like those are rare, the devices’ greatest help has been corroborating parental complaints, such as reports of school buses speeding through neighborhoods or arriving early or late.

“I can go back at any point and get historical data, or I can get real-time data,” White said.

Commenting on Boston’s controversy, White said part of the problem is that bus drivers there are paid an hourly wage instead of per day. “I don’t have much sympathy for those drivers, but in school districts that pay by the hour, [GPS technology] allows [officials] to see what is going on,” he said.

In California’s Ontario-Montclair School District, school officials have installed a GPS device combined with a fingerprint scanner that tracks the bus and the students riding on it on each vehicle.

“If there’s a hijacking or bus accident, we know exactly where that bus is and who is on that bus,” said Stefanie P. Phillips, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services.

“We foresee great benefits when it comes to field trips. We know who got back on that bus,” Phillips said. “It’s far more accurate than a head count and gives us a far better handle on our precious cargo.”

Robin Leeds, an industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), said GPS technology is still a fairly new concept on school buses, and there are bound to be some problems or issues that need to be resolved.

“It’s not an inexpensive technology,” she said. “One concern is that it’s not totally reliable, depending on what system you have.”

The NSTA has received reports of the devices failing when they can’t get a signal, similar to cell-phone “dead spots.” But, Leeds added, the devices do promise many benefits, including the tracking of maintenance needs, fuel usage, and drivers’ speed.

“It could be looked at as a way of keeping tabs on drivers,” Leeds said. “But drivers who are doing their job the way they’ve been trained and are expected to should have nothing to worry about.”

Links:

Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union
http://www.bostonschoolbusunion.org

Boston City Council
http://www.cityofboston.gov/citycouncil

Boston Public Schools
http://boston.k12.ma.us

First Student Inc.
http://www.firststudentinc.com

Hamilton Southeastern Schools
http://www.hse.k12.in.us

Ontario-Montclair School District
http://www.omsd.k12.ca.us

National School Transportation Association
http://www.schooltrans.com