Nine-year-old Molli Mattice was bawling on the side of Riverside Drive in the Mendenhall Valley on the afternoon of Feb. 18. She was lost less than a mile from home, because she had just moved into the neighborhood and didn't know her way around. It was her first day riding the route.
A passing motorist - and total stranger - spotted her a little while later and picked her up.
The bus contractor, First Student, recognized how serious the incident was and took action to prevent it from happening again.
Bus records should illustrate how isolated or pervasive this kind of incident and other bus problems are. First Student has a contractual obligation with the Juneau School District to make monthly written reports of all bus-related complaints and problems to the district, as well as summaries of more mundane daily route reports in which drivers log things like head counts, pick-up times and arrival times.
However, the complaint reports and route summaries don't exist.
Requests by the Juneau Empire for the documents revealed the bookkeeping failure. David Means, the school district's director of administrative services, said he and local bus manager Kevin Hanson handle the reports on the phone and that "there might be some e-mails," but that written reports otherwise don't exist.
The bus contract states, "By August 1, 2008, the Contractor shall develop a system satisfactory to the District for identifying and resolving all complaints from the public about the Contractor's service, personnel, equipment, and other aspects of performance of this agreement. This system shall include a written report, consisting of every complaint and its proposed resolution, submitted to the District on a monthly basis."
Elsewhere, the contract states: "The Contractor shall provide an electronic monthly report summarizing the daily route report for each route segment," due by the fifth business day of the month.
Means, the district's primary liaison with the bus company, deferred further comment to school district spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett, who explained why the district isn't requiring the written records.
"There really weren't complaints to be including in the reports. The company and district agreed the best and most efficient way was to do these verbally" and respond to individual complaints immediately, Bartlett said.
Out of more than 1,300 daily school bus riders on 36 routes, Bartlett said Molli Mattice's case has been the only incident of note this school year, and that overall, the district is satisfied with First Student.
A benevolent stranger
"I was crying, it was really scary," Molli recounted of the day Jennifer Heidersdorf pulled up next to her on Riverside Drive.
The nightmare scenario ended there. Heidersdorf was a Good Samaritan who offered her cell phone to Molli and helped her get home to her worried mom.
"It's terrifying that a stranger picked her up. Anything could have happened," said Molli's mother, Julia Mattice. "It was just 15, 20 minutes, but it was the worst 15 or 20 minutes."
That was Feb. 18, and one of several school bus problems the mother has groused about since moving to Juneau in 2007. Molli's been on three different bus routes in that time because the family has moved within the community twice for unrelated reasons, Mattice said.
Mattice has chewed out bus drivers, worked a new stop into the bus route for Molli with the management at the bus company and complained to school district and city officials. Mattice said the bus company has made good-faith efforts to be accommodating and resolve her concerns - one day, the bus manager even rode the route to follow through on changes they'd made - but she continued to be frustrated by late pick-ups.
The bus contract includes clauses for monetary penalties for bad service, with exceptions for bad weather, natural disasters and other conditions beyond the contractor's control. If a bus arrives 15 minutes or more after bell time, the district can cut 25 percent off the bus fees for the particular route for the day. Missing a bus route entirely comes with a 125 percent penalty.
Bartlett said the monetary penalties have never been invoked.
Mattice contacted the Empire after March 3, when Molli waited about 30 minutes past her scheduled pick-up time at her personal stop at the end of her driveway. (Curbside bus stops are common in the district for elementary school children.) Mendenhall River Community School begins at 8:15 a.m. but the bus came at 8:33 a.m., Mattice said. Molli said she rode the bus to school that day all by herself, she thinks because the driver forgot her, delivered the other kids on the route, then came back to get her.
School district officials and bus company representatives could not confirm that story. Officials at Mendenhall River Community School were not responsive to requests for attendance records to corroborate the claim. Kathleen O'Daniel, Molli's 4th grade teacher, said in an e-mail that she has been tardy only once this year, but noted that children are not marked tardy if it's caused by a late bus.
"Sometimes busses are late, but those days it's because of heavy snowfall or adverse road conditions. They are never more (than) 10 minutes late and even that is rare," O'Daniel wrote.
Molli said the tardy was probably from a separate day on an old bus route, when the bus came unusually early and she missed it.
Kevin Hanson, the local manager with First Student, referred inquiries to corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. Corporate spokeswoman Glenda Lamont acknowledged the gravity of Molli Mattice's Feb. 18 incident, but said it was extremely unusual.
"We obviously take this really seriously. There (was) an investigation going on to understand fully why this happened. One of the things I can tell you, the driver was a substitute driver in this instance, not the regular driver. We also are working with the district to improve the whole way that we sort of work on the routing and things like that. We just look at every one of these incidents, and they are, thankfully, very rare," Lamont said. "It's not acceptable, we accept that, but it's a very rare occurrence."
Lamont said there have been no other complaints from other families on Mattice's route, and that she was unaware of complaints anywhere in the district of recurring lateness.
"It's really important that we deliver children on time, and certainly working with the school district, the whole customer service philosophy would be jeopardized if we weren't delivering kids to school on time," Lamont said.
Lamont said the bus company does document more mundane daily route reports, but keeps them internally, and does not volunteer them for the district's review or keep them as public records. Lamont declined a request to share them.
Other bus contractors?
First Student is the only school bus company in town, and one of only two in the state with the wherewithal to serve Juneau, Bartlett said. That fact, plus Juneau's isolation, means First Student has a captive market. The other contractor in the state is Forsythe Transportation.
Of the 25 bus or transportation companies that came up in a query for First Student on the Better Business Bureau's Web site, the Anchorage branch was the only one with the lowest rating, an F. The Anchorage branch was acquired in 2007 by Forsythe Transportation and now operates under that name. There is no record for Juneau's branch. Most of the others listed were rated with A's or B's.
First Student bought out Juneau's previous bus contractor, Laidlaw Transit Services, in October 2007 and inherited the final year of its five-year contract with the district. The contract was renewed for another five years last year and is worth about $2.7 million annually, Bartlett said.
Laidlaw's history with the district goes back to 2002, when it bought out Auke Bay Garage Bus Line, which preceded Laidlaw in transporting Juneau's students.
If the need arose, Bartlett said the district can renegotiate the First Student contract.
"At this time, I don't see that there's any kind of grounds for that review. If there were a problem, the district would find a solution," she said.
This is the first of five school years that First Student is under contract with the district.
Friday, about a month since Mattice first shared her daughter's story with the Empire, she said lately the bus service has been satisfactory. The morning bus has been coming consistently two or three minutes early, she said.
Molli's little brother, 4-year-old Parker, begins half-day kindergarten in the fall. Mattice, who works from home, hasn't made up her mind if he'll ride the afternoon bus home alone without Molli.
"I'm not real sure. ... He'll only be 5 and I don't trust them with him. I don't know what to think ... I don't have a lot of confidence or faith in the bus system," Mattice said.