School Bus Fiasco Illustrates Importance of Robust Vendor Risk Management

If you’re a parent, back-to-school time is chaotic, stressful and exciting all at the same time for you and your child. My son is beginning his second year of pre-school and couldn’t have been more excited to get back and play with his friends on a daily basis again.

For public schools in Florida’s capital city though, the first week was especially chaotic and stressful for students, parents, and school staff.

Since one of my recent articles discussed methods for assessing and monitoring vendor risks, I felt this situation was a timely example of what can happen without robust vendor risk management.

Before exploring the impacts of this situation and what local officials should have done, let me first explain the situation.

Out-of-state third-party vendor uses advanced technology to develop new bus routes for 2019 school year…

In November 2018, officials with Leon County Schools (LCS) and EduLog, a Montana-based software company who specializes in school transportation, announced that changes to the school bus system would be occurring for the 2019-20 school year.

At the time, LCS Transportation Director Manny Joanos explained that changes would “…improve and increase efficiency of our routes.” LCS Superintendent Rocky Hanna and the school board gave their approval.

In the changes, EduLog’s software consolidated or moved many stops. Entire routes were changed and there were “non-mirrored” runs, meaning that a student would be riding a different bus in the mornings and afternoons.

But just before the new stops and routes were set to be released to the school system, the master plan housed on EduLog’s systems was accidentally erased on Monday, August 5th, a week before school was scheduled to start. With no backup available to recover the data, the company had to scramble to rebuild the routes and stops from scratch.

Once the routes were finally released to LCS on Wednesday, officials and drivers worked overtime Thursday, Friday, and through the weekend to learn the routes and make sure things were in place.

When the drivers were reviewing the new routes, they expressed grave concerns about many of the stops and how some of the routes went on streets that weren’t meant to handle a large school bus. They also expressed concern about having students ride on two different buses in the morning and afternoon.

When the first day of school arrived on Monday, August 12th, bus drivers’ concerns came to fruition and then some.

Systemic delays meant kids were either late or not picked up at all. Some kids were spotted walking down a major highway by themselves, which is dangerous for a variety of reasons. Others were seen waiting at bus stops well past 9:00. With the sizzling summer we’ve had in north Florida, this is also dangerous.

And because kids were on a different bus in the afternoons, there was confusion as to where they were supposed to be in the afternoon.

Also on the first day, many students did not get home until after 6:00 in the evening, several hours after school was dismissed. According to one driver, there were kindergartners who did not know where they lived, so they had to be taken back to the school. Parents were frantic since they did not know their children’s whereabouts.

The second day of school didn’t go well either. Irate parents and drivers voiced their concerns in a heated school board meeting Tuesday night (Aug. 13th).

“If safety was a priority, why are these kids crossing four lane highways? You had a special needs kid leave school in a bus, and arrive home in a van, with no explanation of why,” explains Casey Poliza, mother of a disabled child.

The following morning, Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced that LCS was cancelling its contract for bus routing services with EduLog and that effective Monday, Aug. 19, buses would begin running on last year’s routes. Transportation Director Manny Joanos was also relieved of his duties effective immediately.

In the meantime, Superintendent Hanna urged parents to drive their kids to school if they are able.

Lack of robust vendor risk management exposed Leon County to a host of consequences…

This situation is a great example of what can happen when an organization does not fully understand its risks around vendors. As explained in this article published July 29th, it’s likely the procurement people at LCS were already covering the basics of managing vendor risks (i.e. contract compliance, contract pricing, etc.).

But since LCS officials did not consider disruption risks of using EduLog’s bus routing system or have any alternatives ready to deploy, there were numerous impacts felt by students, parents, school officials, and even the community at large.

Of course, the biggest impact is to the children…

Returning to school is an emotional time, especially for the youngest students or those new to the area. The bus issue added tremendous stress to an already stressful situation. Other impacts to students and parents include:

  • Safety – As mentioned early, many kids were forced to walk down busy highways in blistering hot weather. Having a child stand alone on the side of the road also makes them vulnerable to predators.
  • Traffic delays – Since a higher number of parents started driving their kids to school on the second and third day of school, traffic delays were experienced throughout the city of Tallahassee, causing issues for the entire community.
  • Impacts to businesses and other employers – Since a larger number of parents ended up driving their kids to school, many were late for work, leading to delayed meetings, deadlines, and more.

Besides the “operational” impacts, there are other financial and reputational consequences LCS is now facing. These include:

  • Increased costs of operating buses after hours, including fuel and overtime pay for drivers and other LCS employees.
  • Reputational impacts to Superintendent Hanna and the school system in general. As seen by this string of comments to a local TV station, blame is being spread all around. Will Superintendent Hanna and other school board officials lose re-election in 2020 because of this fiasco?

 

 

And let’s not forget EduLog. Certainly news of the mistake on their end and the impacts will spread around. Will other school districts now use their bus routing services? There are 67 school districts in the state of Florida alone, so there’s a high chance this will impact EduLog’s strategic goals, at least in the near-term.

Of course, all of these impacts are readily apparent. As time goes on, a a clearer picture of the total impact of this situation on both LCS and EduLog will eventually emerge.

(Check out this article to learn more high-level consequences of not taking a proactive approach to assessing and managing risks.)

It appears LCS did not factor risk associated with such a major decision, ignored warning signs.

This situation is a great case study as to why it’s important for any type of organization to assess risks around projects or big changes. In fact, I question whether any organizational best practices exist at LCS, whether it is strategic decision-making, project management, or vendor management.

Here are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • Did LCS officials have any sort of backup or response plan in the event things didn’t go as planned?
  • Why didn’t LCS officials insist EduLog provide route information earlier so potential issues could be addressed before the first day of school?
  • Why didn’t officials listen to drivers’ concerns about before such a critical milestone?
  • Did officials consider the risk of relying on technology to plan out routes 100%?
  • For such a huge initiative, why wasn’t LCS in constant communications with EduLog about milestones, action items?
  • Did LCS ask EduLog about their data backup and recovery processes? (After all, this was a technology-based contract.)
  • What kind of discussions were held during the preliminary concept? Did they discuss data sources for determining routes or how the routes were determined to be the best option?

Technology such as artificial intelligence has tremendous potential, but it has its limitations. Feedback from bus drivers before the start of school tell of roads too small to drive a bus on and stops unsafe for kids to use.

Had Superintendent Hanna and LCS officials considered questions like this back in 2018, they may have decided to not move forward, or to move forward, but with the strictest oversight of their vendor. As Hanna explains:

The easiest thing for the school board and I to do would have been nothing; last year at the start of school we didn’t have any issues or problems. The year before, no issues or problems.

The failure to assess risks around this big change is not the only missteps LCS officials made.

While a call center has been set up, there have been several complaints from parents on poor or even nonexistent communication from school officials about concerns with the new bus routing system.

To learn more about crisis communications, check out this interview with Evan Bloom, CEO of Fortress Strategic Communications.

Thankfully, there have been no reports of injuries or fatalities caused by this fiasco, so it’s likely this story will not be reported outside our local area.

But as a parent, I certainly understand how stressful this situation must be for everyone involved. Hopefully LCS officials will learn these hard lessons and take better care in the future to properly understand the risks around their decisions and plan accordingly.

Although this is a local story affecting families in the Tallahassee area, it is a great illustration as to the importance of robust vendor risk management in any organization and how the failure to understand risks can have ripple effects beyond the organization.

Are there other precautions LCS officials could have taken to reduce or avoid risks around the bus routing changes?

What was the trigger for your organization to start assessing risks around vendors?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this interesting real-world example of why it’s important to understand vendor risks. Please feel free to leave a comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

If your organization is struggling to develop a process around assessing vendor risks, or are experiencing negative impacts due to a vendor outage, I invite you to visit my services page or contact me to discuss your specific situation today.

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