Last fall, city parents were outraged when a school bus carrying a bunch of kindergarten and first graders got lost for almost five hours in Brooklyn. The incident led to renewed calls for a Global Positioning System for school buses.
But Department of Education officials told a City Council committee hearing today that such a system is still nowhere near ready to be rolled out - despite more than four years of planning, and expectations that a pilot program would take place in 2006. Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm says it 'is certainly bigger than we originally expected, given the complexity of building a system that links buses, satellites, and a command center, as well as the challenge of scaling the system to fit the size and nature of our bus fleet - and it will take longer than we originally predicted.' She noted that the MTA had also run into problems with GPS technology as well as other school districts.
City Council members were bewildered by this statement. Transportation committee chairman John Liu, who is also running for city comptroller, declared, "Tracking vehicles in today's modern times is actually not that complicated. By your own testimony, the difficulties have to do with the bells and whistles that are intended to be applied here." Liu blamed a lack of a sense of urgency and called for legislation that would establish a firm deadline for the DOE to get the system up and running so school buses are no longer in a "Bermuda Triangle."
But Grimm said it isn't enough to just track the location of the buses, because the DOE also wants to know which students are on them, and details about when their schools get out and which routes they are following. Chief Executive for School Support Services Eric Goldstein said a pilot program with eight buses is now moving ahead, and should include a total of 50 buses by the time it's evaluated in October. But he warned that the devices take time to install, maybe two or four per day. "We have over 7000 buses," he reminded the Council members, plus spares. "Just by taking that simple bit of the manual part of putting these GPS computers on the buses and the antennas it takes months, if not years, to get through thousands and thousands and thousands of buses."
"I don't know if you know how ridiculous that sounds," responded Liu, who kept insisting "it's not that complicated" even as school officials told him it was.
Meanwhile, Grimm said all buses are outfitted with two-way radios to stay on top of the drivers.
One bit of news: The DOE said it was now collaborating with the information technology agency DOITT, which is already building a wireless network for use by emergency responders and the Department of Sanitation. Some Council members questioned why this wasn't done earlier, given that the schools are now controlled by the mayor - who has access to all city agencies. "This is something that if mayoral control can't totally guarantee the safety of our school children after all these years, I'm really offended by this," said Brooklyn Council member Michael Nelson, who hastened to add that he supported mayoral control.
The hearing lasted less than an hour and a half, which is brief by the standards of Council hearings. Council member Simcha Felder of Brooklyn wished he had more time, though. As the DOE officials left the meeting room on Broadway, across the street from City Hall, Felder followed them out saying he still didn't get to ask his questions.