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In first public appearance since JCPS bus fiasco, Pollio promises change

A man in a suit stands before a TV camera and a collection of microphones. He is in a parking lot. A school bus is parked in the background.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio takes questions from reporters on Aug. 9. Later that day, the district's new transportation plan broke down, leaving some students in transit until nearly 10 p.m.

In a tense news conference Friday, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio apologized for the district’s transportation debacle, and vowed to quickly correct course.

It was Pollio’s first public appearance since the district’s complex new transportation plan failed on the very first day of school, prompting JCPS to cancel classes for the rest of the week.

“Change is hard. … It's brought up some issues that we've had to deal with. Quite candidly, we should have anticipated those problems better than what we did,” Pollio said.

Pollio said he and his team are working to find “short-term solutions” and “efficiencies” so JCPS can bring students back by the middle of next week.

“There are still going to be challenges, there are going to be delays. We’re working in the same system,” he warned. “But it's going to be much more efficient, and our communication will be much better with families and schools. So we want to make sure we get that right before we put kids on the school bus again.”

He could not give a firm date for reopening but said the district would let parents know by Saturday “at the latest.”

He tried to dispel rumors that district leadership were considering sending students into remote instruction, known as NTI.

“We are in no way considering NTI,” Pollio said.

The district used “snow days” to waive Thursday and Friday.

Possible fixes

Over the next several days, Pollio said the district is trying to figure out how to make the transfer process more efficient at bus depots. One reason so many buses were late Wednesday is because a delay of one bus to a depot meant all the other buses those students transferred to had to wait, making them late to their next destination.

Pollio also said buses often fell behind because students missed their stops, or because adults weren’t at their stops to pick them up, prompting drivers to either return to the school, wait or circle the block.

There were also issues with how students were tagged with their bus number, he said.

Long-term, Pollio said the district will look into getting GPS for school buses with turn-by-turn technology. He said drivers currently operate with a list of instructions printed out on paper.

“It is essentially a sheet of paper that says, ‘Take a right here, take a left here,’” he explained.

Pollio says consultant not to blame

Asked whether the issue was the route design itself or its implementation, Pollio laid the blame on implementation.

The routes were designed by AlphaRoute, a Boston consulting firm that JCPS signed a $265,000 contract with in March 2023. AlphaRoute also advised JCPS on transportation issues in 2022.

“I'm not going to put it on the company,” Pollio said.

He waived off concerns that Columbus City Schools had well-documented issues using AlphaRoute, and even brought in a new vendor to help sort things out.

“We spoke to Columbus about that specifically,” Pollio said. “I think what they said … was their major problem was implementation and how it talked from their computer system to AlphaRoute’s computer system.”

A representative for AlphaRoute declined an interview request from LPM News but sent a statement from CEO John Hanlon calling the situation “extremely regrettable.”

“[A]t this time it's not yet clear what the root causes were for those issues,” the statement reads.

“JCPS has a great team, and we know that their leadership and drivers are still working through it. We are fully confident that the new bell times and the new routes will work as planned, and we will do everything we can to support the district during this process.”

Driver says routes are poorly designed

Some JCPS bus drivers and their loved ones took to social media to say there were issues with the way their routes were designed and that they had little time to practice them.

One driver who asked to remain anonymous told LPM her route was riddled with inaccuracies, like sending her the wrong way down a one-way street.

She also said the routes were longer and more complex than ever before, and that they didn’t leave enough time for loading and unloading or daily rush hour traffic.

“They didn’t account for any of that,” the driver said. She asked to remain unnamed to protect her job.

Drivers brought the issues to their managers when they got their route sheets on Aug. 1. But they were largely ignored.

Pollio acknowledged that breakdown was among a number of problems.

“There's no doubt that we received those complaints,” he said. “That was one of the things that I've thought of a lot in my almost nonstop awake hours over the past four days.”

The driver said she and others have been asked to make their own corrections over the next several days. But even with corrections, she’s not convinced the routes can be executed within the promised timeframe.

“They need to completely redo the routes,” she said.

Pollio admitted he never met with bus drivers to get their feedback on the plan before implementation. He promised to meet monthly with a group of drivers moving forward.

Pollio pops off

Pollio was apologetic during much of the news conference, but at times he grew indignant, even shouting down a reporter.

A reporter from WAVE News asked the superintendent to explain why he was not available Thursday to take questions about the fiasco, which made national news. Instead of holding a news conference, Pollio released an early morning video statement. The superintendent had not publicly explained his much-noted absence Thursday.

“So if you are asking me if I was a dad yesterday, yes, I was a dad yesterday — if that's what you are asking me,” Pollio angrily told the reporter, going on to say he helped his daughter move into college.

“My family has suffered a great deal from me having this job. I think that's really an unbelievable question from you!”

When another reporter tried to intervene, Pollio yelled, “I'm answering the question!”

Asked what he made of calls from some for his resignation, Pollio answered: “That is obviously their opinion.”

“I have been tasked to lead bold change. .. It comes with major challenges. I've taken responsibility for that, but [I’m] going to keep doing that work until either I decide I'm not going to do it, or the board decides that they don't want me to do it anymore,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter said the board has “confidence” in Pollio to “correct this untenable situation.”

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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