Some CPS students could get free CTA rides to school as district tries new workarounds to bus driver shortage

·3 min read

Chicago Public Schools is looking to provide free Chicago Transit Authority passes to general education students who are unable to receive school bus transportation in the new school year, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday.

Facing another school year with a school bus driver shortage, the Chicago Board of Education approved a policy Wednesday that prioritizes students whose individualized education plans call for transportation and students in temporary living situations. These students are eligible to receive a $500 monthly stipend if they choose to forgo the bus transportation.

General education students, meanwhile, could receive a free CTA pass, though details of how to acquire the fare cards were not available at Wednesday’s monthly board meeting. A CTA spokesperson did not have an immediate comment. CPS students already pay less than other CTA riders when they travel during certain hours of school days.

Martinez said more than 15,000 families are in line to receive transportation services. CPS is projecting it can route all of those students for the upcoming school year, though the routing system is constantly in flux as families join or leave the district. About 80% of students would ride the school bus less than an hour each way. Some parents may see longer route times and opt for an alternative, Martinez said.

By many measures, school bus transportation was a disaster last year. Parents struggled to find reliable transportation for their children just before school started because the bus driver shortage left thousands of students with inconvenient bus routes or no service at all. Some parents complained the transportation stipends CPS promised them arrived months late.

Martinez said district vendors are offering bus drivers at least $20 an hour — an increase from the last school year — to make CPS competitive with the suburbs in attracting and retaining employees.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said she’s glad these plans are being worked out weeks before school starts Aug. 22. The school bus woes stretched into the winter of the last school year.

“The driver shortage challenge nationally does not change, but our approach to (transportation) has to change because of that,” Todd-Breland said.

During the public comment period at Wednesday’s board meeting, Northside College Prep teacher Alice Costas said families of students with special needs are being pressured into accepting the “inadequate” monthly stipend ahead of the new school year.

“Our school has a program for severe and profoundly disabled students, and they require adult accompaniment. Most of them use wheelchairs, and many require specialized equipment,” Costas said. “There’s not an Uber in this world that can provide that and certainly not for $500 or $1,000 a month round trip. Our kids need transportation. They need safe, reliable, expedient transportation that accommodates all of their needs.”

Martinez said some families specifically requested the stipend because it worked for them last year. He called transportation planning “a massive, massive effort.”

In June, the board authorized a new $677,500 agreement with Christopher Toczycki Inc. for student transportation consulting services through June 2023. A consultant based in Lake Forest, Toczycki saw his one-year, no-bid contract for $677,500 expire June 30.

“CPS continues to adapt its transportation services amid a national bus driver shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The contract renewal for Christopher Toczycki will be additive to our current transportation services for students,” CPS said in a statement last month about the renewal of Toczycki’s contract.

tswartz@tribpub.com