Late buses, school bus drivers unfamiliar with routes, and missing children on the first day of school prompted officials to close Muncie Community Schools in Indiana for the rest of the week. This is the latest hitch in a series of problems for the financially embattled school district.
MCS replaced its former school bus contractor, which Superintendent Steven Baule said the district had used for 40 years, with Auxilo Services for the 2017-2018 school year with True Consultant Service as the bus routing coordinator. The unfamiliarity of these two parties with the area was one reason cited by MCS for the transportation problems that plagued the first day of school on Wednesday. Making matters worse, 20 percent of the bus drivers quit days before school opened, redistricting due to financial troubles forced MCS to close three schools, and the district is encountering an increasingly “transitory population.”
A Thursday statement posted to MCS’s website and Facebook page informed families that schools would remain closed until Monday. “The safety of our students is our top priority. The situation was unsafe and it is paramount that we correct those issues before we resume school.” Beule was quoted as saying in the statement.
STN contacted MCS, Auxilo and True Consultants for comment. A substitute receptionist at MCS said the district was operating with a skeleton staff while working to fix the situation. Auxilo Services had not responded at the time of this writing and True Consultant Services declined to comment, directing questions back to MCS.
Adam Baker, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education, told STN the state has offered to help MCS by providing experience, new perspectives and navigation as they “regroup and kick-start” their school year. Baker said the DOE would not provide financial assistance for MCS’s current transportation problems.
The transportation fiasco comes on the heels of a shortage of funds that has plagued MCS for some time. An annual savings of over $1 million was cited as a reason for MCS changing their bus contractor to Auxilo Services. This switch happened before an emergency management team provided by consultant Administrator Assistance was hired in July by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board to help MCS handle their fiscal situation.
Steve Wittenauer, founder of Administrator Assistance and a retired superintendent for Benton Community Schools in Indiana, said in a press conference on Thursday afternoon: “I think there is probably enough blame to go around without naming specific individuals or entities” but confirmed that the main problem was that MCS “didn’t get the routes redone the way they should have” after switching bus contractors.
While Wittenauer could not provide any more details on the transportation issues, he did share additional information related to MCS’ financial situation. He said the district's “stressful” situation would have exhausted all reserve funds by the end of September, but that the district is working with civic leaders and the DOE to get a loan to recoup a $20 million deficit.
In answer to a question about the possibility of that burden falling on taxpayers, Wittenauer said that “it is possible that they may have to end up paying part of this bill.”