NEW ORLEANS — The proliferation of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina has completely changed public schools in New Orleans. They’ve also caused a seismic shift in school busing, with the ranks of school bus providers ballooning in recent years.
For the first time this year, the Orleans Parish School Board required most of the two dozen charter organizations with schools in New Orleans to provide bus service to students.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration is concerned the far-flung, decentralized charter school bus system has become the “wild, wild west.” Cantrell is now proposing to give the city’s Taxicab Bureau control over bus inspections, enforcement and driver background checks.
Jennifer Cecil, the head of the city’s One Stop Shop, the office that handles licenses and permits, told the City Council’s Transportation Committee that a random sweep of illegally parked buses in August found disturbing violations of state school bus regulations.
“In our initial sweep of 21 buses parked on the right-of-way, we found nine of them had no license plate posted,” Cecil said.
City records show additional sweeps in August found more buses without license plates, some with fraudulent brake tags for passenger vehicles of less than 6,000 pounds, others with inspection tags from Jacksonville, Fla.
“There were seats that were ripped and torn, but also seats that were not bolted to the floor of the vehicle, allowing the seats to topple over and move around,” she said, referring to buses inspected by New Orleans Police.
A shocked City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, the chairwoman of the transportation committee, did a double-take when Cecil said police found one of the buses with its rear emergency exit padlocked shut.
“Yes, ma’am. And that was, as the bus was pulling up at the end of its route and were stopped by NOPD,” Cecil told Palmer.
Safety and Permits Director Zachary Smith said the proposed change to the city charter would finally put one entity in control of enforcement after 13 years relying on infrequent inspections by the State Police.
“We feel very strongly that the legislation as proposed would be the teeth we need to help enforce something that we’ve been unable to enforce and, again, fill in that gap that’s gone for so long where it’s a ‘wild, wild west” of buses being parked in all districts,” Smith said.
But the bus companies are pushing back, and the first to do so was Scholars First, a Gonzales-based company that formed in 2015 and has emerged as a popular provider for charter schools from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Scholars First has been at the center of controversy after one of its drivers was caught on cell phone video repeatedly striking a child from Bricolage Academy last Wednesday afternoon.
But on Thursday, Scholars First regional operations manager Hamilton Williams wanted the city to pump the brakes on more bus regulations.
“Let's put this on hold,” Williams said. “City, meet with the contractors. Then let's discuss, what are the possibilities? Give us time to fix these regulations and let's put it in place and let's move forward.”
WWL-TV found Scholars First buses parked in the right-of-way on streets, including busy South Claiborne Avenue, overnight and all day over the weekend. The station went to look at Scholars First buses in New Orleans East and found they were moved last week from the right-of-way to a grass field next to a convenience store that the city said did not have the proper permits to serve as a parking lot.
Neighbors off Stemway Drive confronted Scholars First officials after about 60 buses suddenly appeared in the field at 5 a.m.
“They park everywhere. They block the people’s mail boxes. It’s just inconvenient for the neighbors,” said Donna Williams, who lives directly across from the new Scholars First bus lot.
When a WWL-TV camera started recording, Scholars First employees started moving the buses out of the lot. The buses had created huge mud pits in the grass field and several of them got stuck. One bus went around the lot pulling some of the stuck buses out of divots.
Several of the buses were moved just down the street, back to the right-of-way in a residential neighborhood, which is expressly forbidden by city zoning codes. WWL-TV followed one bus onto the highway when it left the lot only to have it take the next exit and circle back to the lot.
Scholars First’s attorney, Randy McKee, said the bus company had signed a lease with the owner of the convenience store and the permits are the landowner’s responsibility. Samih Alhilu told WWL-TV on Friday that he owned the store and would work on getting the proper permits. City records indicate the owner of the property is Sufyan Nassar.
“I have a beautiful home, a beautiful neighborhood and we got to look at stuff like this. And I’m fed up with it!” Gilmore said.
And so is Smith, the Safety and Permits director, who says his office has gotten very little help from the Orleans Parish School Board getting control of the problem.
“Right now, up until today, this has not been taken seriously by anybody but the people in this building,” he said.
Avione Pichon appeared at the council meeting for the Orleans Parish School Board. She said the board has taken the initiative to have the Louisiana State Police inspect some buses, but its powers over individual charter schools’ contracts with bus companies are limited.