First the school buses didn’t show for many CPS students. Now it’s the transportation reimbursements checks for their put-out parents.
Bronson Stamper was looking forward to taking the bus to Chicago’s Whitney Young Academic Center in the fall.
The seventh grader waited at her Hyde Park bus stop for the first three days of school, her mother said, but the bus didn’t arrive. So Bronson’s parents have been driving her to Whitney Young from their home in the Washington Park neighborhood.
“You want to give (your child) that independence when you drop them off at the bus stop, and then you get that call from your kid saying, ‘I’m still sitting here.’ Doesn’t do us any good,” Lydia Stamper told the Tribune.
To make matters worse, Stamper said she has received only a portion of the money Chicago Public Schools promised to give families without bus service or those who have been affected by longer route times. When the nationwide bus driver shortage became a crisis for the district when the school year began in late August, officials offered parents $1,000 for the first two weeks and $500 a month thereafter.
Stamper said she collected a $1,000 check from Whitney Young in October, but no other money since then. Other parents told the Tribune they have been reimbursed some but not all of the money they are owed, and they have not heard from CPS about when their checks will arrive.
In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the district has provided financial support to more than 3,600 students who have experienced transportation issues this school year. Checks are supposed to be sent the second week of the month to cover the prior month, after a student’s attendance is verified.
“The district continues to make payments monthly, and parents can report any delays in payment by contacting student transportation at (773) 553-2860,” CPS said in a statement. Parents can also reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By many measures, the CPS bus system has been a fiasco this year. Hundreds of diverse learners whose individualized education plans require transportation, as well as other CPS students, have not had service because there are not enough bus drivers, a problem that has grown worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chicago Board of Education approved a resolution last month prioritizing diverse learners, saying routes for other students may be canceled if the diverse learners don’t receive service by Feb. 28. The district said it will offer families whose children lose their route $1,000 up front and $500 a month thereafter starting in March.
CPS said it has reduced the number of students without transportation from nearly 3,000 in October to 1,468 last week, including 368 diverse learners. An update on the matter is expected at the Feb. 23 board meeting, which is five days before the board’s self-imposed deadline.
In the meantime, some parents who were supposed to be receiving reimbursement checks are demanding answers.
Lesley Chinn said her family has been driving her fifth grader from their South Side home to Keller Regional Gifted Center in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood since the bus dropped her son off late on the first day of school. Chinn said she only received a $1,000 check in November, though she is due $500 a month as well.
“I have been calling just about every day to make sure, like, where are the checks? Where are they? Where are they? It’s still unclear as to what’s going on,” Chinn told the Tribune.
CPS — which is slated to receive $2.8 billion in direct emergency pandemic relief funding over five fiscal years — says the checks go to the schools. Stamper said she only knew to pick up her check at her daughter’s school because another parent had done the same. There were 15 to 20 reimbursement checks at the Whitney Young office when Stamper picked her check up, she said.
The lack of communication has caused some families to take desperate measures. One parent forwarded the Tribune an email she sent to CPS CEO Pedro Martinez in December about not receiving any bus reimbursement money even though she has repeatedly contacted the district’s office of student transportation services.
“I feel disrespected and humiliated by CPS transportation to an extreme. This treatment is not even human anymore,” she wrote.
At the January board meeting, a parent of a fourth grader without bus transportation called the situation a “significant source of stress” for her family and said the district should be sharing their efforts to implement service. She didn’t mention any issue with reimbursement.
CPS transportation director Kimberly Jones told the board she has been giving updates to principals. Board member Lucino Sotelo said the district needs to make sure families know what’s going on as well.
“At a minimum, we definitely need to set expectations. We need to do a better job of communicating with them,” Sotelo said.