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JCPS, AlphaRoute push back against transportation auditor

Photo taken from the back of a board room. Dozens of people are seated in rows of chairs. Several people in suits are talking at a dais.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
The Jefferson County Board of Education heard from Prismatic founder Tatia Prieto during its meeting on March 26, 2024.

AlphaRoute’s CEO says some findings are untrue in the scathing audit of its transportation plan for Jefferson County Public Schools. A JCPS official has accused the auditor of grandstanding.

The tech company that helped develop Jefferson County Public Schools’ troubled busing plan is contesting several findings of a blistering audit.

AlphaRoute’s CEO John Hanlon said some of the findings of the independent audit conducted by Prismatic Services Inc. are untrue.

Meanwhile, a top JCPS official is accusing the lead auditor of trying to “grandstand” and making “patently false” assertions during Tuesday’s Jefferson County Board of Education meeting.

The Prismatic audit, released Monday, found poor performance by AlphaRoute and sprawling failures in JCPS’ central office were to blame for the transportation catastrophe on Aug. 9.

Timeline discrepancies

One of the most damning findings of the Prismatic report was that AlphaRoute delivered its final routing plan to JCPS staff on July 17 — less than a month before the beginning of school. According to Prismatic, JCPS initially anticipated having all route information for review by May.

But Hanlon, of AlphaRoute, told LPM News that the audit mischaracterized what happened, and that the company provided a solution in May “that was intended to be the final routing package.”

It was JCPS staff, Hanlon said, who requested AlphaRoute design another solution with a new set of student data.

JCPS didn’t provide that data until mid-June, Hanlon said, which “really set everything behind.”

Emails obtained by LPM show JCPS’ then-Geographic Information System manager Brent West sent a number of student transportation data files to AlphaRoute on June 13 with the subject line “Data for Alpha Route Final Scenario.”

As originally reported by WAVE 3 News, emails show the final plans were ready for JCPS on July 7 and loaded into AlphaRoute’s interface on July 10.

“Had they been able to work off of the initial solution that we had fully handed over to them in early May, I think things might have been different,” Hanlon said.

Contractor says stops weren’t missing

Another point of contention is the addition of 5,000 stops JCPS added to the final plan after it was delivered in July.

In the days after the meltdown, AlphaRoute and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio laid the blame on JCPS staff for adding thousands of stops without accounting for the extra time they would require.

In Prismatic’s audit, investigators concluded that JCPS staff added those stops because the solution AlphaRoute delivered in July was flawed and incomplete. The report found AlphaRoute overlooked commutes for thousands of students, including nearly two entire schools: Byck Elementary and W.E.B. DuBois Academy.

Hanlon called that finding “100% untrue.”

“We built complete bus routes for all schools, including those two,” he said.

He said there were fewer than 100 students that were missing either a morning or afternoon stop.

Prismatic founder Tatia Prieto declined to comment on AlphaRoute’s points of contention, saying the company doesn’t usually comment to the media on a project while a contract is ongoing.

The report delivered Monday was Phase 1 of Prismatic’s work and meant to untangle the causes of the Aug. 9 fiasco. Prismatic is still working on the Phase 2 report, which will take a broader look at JCPS’ transportation challenges.

AlphaRoute says Prismatic had a conflict of interest

Hanlon claims a large amount of information AlphaRoute provided to Prieto was not presented in the report.

“The information that is presented in the report paints us in a negative light,” Hanlon said.

“The only explanation I've been able to come to for that, is that there is a significant conflict of interest in Prismatic Services performing this audit because they are a competitor of ours, and they would have a self-interest to misrepresent our work in this engagement.”

In addition to auditing, Prismatic consults with school districts for solutions around start times and bus routing.

In the report, Prismatic makes several references to Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, where the firm is contracted to help with start times and routing.

In a statement, Prieto seemed to suggest Prismatic does not view AlphaRoute as a competitor.

“Prismatic sells neither algorithms nor routing software,” she wrote.

She also noted that Prismatic won the contract in a competitive bid and said, “In our proposal we clearly outlined that we had done work with Anne Arundel in rerouting their system.”

After Prieto’s presentation to the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday, several members expressed interest in bringing Prismatic on to help craft next year’s routes.

Top JCPS staffer raises concerns about auditor

JCPS Chief Operations Officer Rob Fulk is pushing back against Prieto’s presentation Tuesday, calling her statements “damaging.”

Prieto warned board members against approving a JCPS staff recommendation to cut magnet transportation. She said she believes it’s possible to improve routing and delays without reducing services. She also said the district is not as short as many drivers as JCPS staffers believe.

But in a letter to board members Wednesday, Fulk called Prieto’s assertion that JCPS is only down 17 drivers “patently false.”

“Of all the things speculated on last night, this is perhaps the one that is the most damaging as it is patently untrue, and said off the cuff to grandstand in front of the public,” Fulk wrote.

Fulk also took issue with Prieto’s proposal that staff could continue to find efficiencies in incremental changes, calling it an “insult” to the transportation staff.

“While I’m sure there is some area we can trim a little more, I have no issue saying we have trimmed about as much as we possibly can,” Fulk said.

Fulk, who was promoted to COO after the Aug. 9 snafu, also warned against delaying a decision on the 2024-2025 school year any further.

“If the primary message from the audit is to listen to our transportation department, then hear them: we need a decision for next year so that we do not get further behind in routing,” Fulk’s letter said.

The audit found JCPS’ transportation department was intentionally excluded from planning this year’s transportation overhaul. Fulk said since he was brought in, the transportation department has “been in every discussion when we work towards solutions.”

Prieto declined to comment on Fulk’s letter.

The board is meeting April 16 to consider a transportation fix once again after tabling a vote on a recommendation to cut magnet and traditional program transportation.

District 5 board member Linda Duncan previously told LPM she believes JCPS staff “may very well” bring a similar proposal next month.

That plan has been criticized by community members as unfair to students who can’t afford private transportation. Some community members are also angry over a March gathering of district higher-ups who gave the plan a pass on a Racial Equity Analysis Protocol, or REAP.

Members of a community REAP committee told LPM the plan did not pass the racial fairness test when that group met in November and February.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.