It is becoming more clear that leaders of Kentucky's largest school system will be making massive changes to its policies regarding which students are transported and to where.
As Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio puts it, their hands are tied - the task of transporting 68,000 students to and from schools is simply not possible anymore, given the national bus driver shortage that has forced education leaders to alter their transportation systems.
"We have some tough decisions ahead of us, there's no doubt about it," Pollio told board members during their meeting this week. "We will have to make some decisions around who gets transportation and possibly who doesn't, or what type of transportation we do provide."
Changes to the district's transportation system this year were meant to remedy two issues: Students getting to and from school late and the lack of sleep middle and high school students were enduring with a 7:40 a.m. start time. But then on the first day of classes, students were stuck after school for hours and some didn't get home till nearly 10 p.m.
Over the course of several days that school was canceled, district leaders made changes that have significantly improved efficiency - with the last students now regularly getting home about 7 p.m. - which is less than three hours after the last set of schools dismiss. Still, Pollio and board members are looking toward a long-term solution that will significantly reduce the number of students transported by school buses each day.
Pollio told board members whatever change is made, he wants it to be impactful.
"Any change we make is going to have to reduce the number of routes significantly," he said. "I don't want to make a major change and only reduce by 75 routes. We need to say, 'If we make this change, it is a sustainable change and it will be a sustainable change for the foreseeable future.'"
How could JCPS curb bus ridership?
JCPS has several options, including reducing its ridership solely to the students who are federally required to receive transportation to incentivizing families to carry more of the burden.
Pollio said he wants to "produce a menu of options to our board and community" at the board's next meeting in late September.
Paying families to transport their own children to schools is one remedy that large urban districts have turned to amid the driver shortage.
Philadelphia's school district began paying eligible parents $300 a month to take their kids to school this year following a pilot program launched in 2020. More than half of the he district's approximately 200,000 students are eligible for transportation, per its policies, and about 33,000 are transported. But, about 13,000 students' families have taken advantage of the monthly stipends, according to a report by an ABC affiliate.
The details of how those payments work if a student needs to switch back to busing is unclear - an issue Pollio brought up when asked if JCPS would consider a similar program.
"The logistics of it are a major concern for me – who exactly do you give it to and does it mean they can't get on a bus after," he said.
Chicago Public Schools has implemented a similar program, but the monthly stipend is only offered to the parents of children who are required to receive transportation.
Federal law requires districts to provide transportation for homeless students and those with a disability plan, known as an Individualized Education Plan, that includes transportation services.
Chicago's district is now only transporting those groups, which equates to about 7,100 students, according to a Chicago NBC affiliate.
The district offers those families $500 a month to transport their children. The district offers city transportation vouchers for other children.
In Louisville, community members have suggested such parent stipends as a solution to JCPS' busing woes. Some have also suggested that JCPS stop transporting students who don't qualify for free or reduced lunches or who choose to attend a school outside their neighborhood.
Which students does JCPS have to bus?
JCPS students are eligible for busing if they live more than one mile from their schools, but there are exceptions the district can make to pick up students within that range.
Meanwhile, district spokesman Mark Hebert said JCPS had about 3,300 homeless students and about 1,500 students with Individualized Education Plans that required transportation last year. If the district chose to limit riders to only these two groups − the only students it is required to transport − ridership would decrease by 91%.
However, such a move could eliminate students' opportunity to be taken to a magnet school that they otherwise could not attend. That would create another issue as the district seeks to diversify its magnet programs.
School board member James Craig echoed Pollio, stressing that today's system is simply unsustainable.
"Everyone in the district knows we are patching this system together on a daily basis depending on who is available to pitch in and I think the system needs more predictability than we are able to deliver right now," Craig told The Courier Journal. "It's wonderful we have offered transportation to any child who requested it, up until this time."
When asked who to exclude, though, Craig didn't have an answer.
He mentioned Chicago's move to solely follow federal law, the discontinuation of magnet student busing, limiting busing to economically disadvantaged students, and expanding the radius of how close students can live to a school and still get a bus.
Each of these, though, still create concerns. For example, he said economically disadvantaged students comprise nearly 70% of the district, so its unclear if this choice would significantly decrease ridership.
"Whatever the solution is," he said, "we just need to hear from the operations specialist as to what could deliver a functioning, sustainable and predictable system."
Contact reporter Krista Johnson at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: JCPS bus problems: School district seeks 'sustainable' solutions