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JCPS officials working to fix bus fiasco as students return to school

A photo of the top of a school bus showing the front lights and windshield.
Thomas Park
JCPS officials are making several changes to address issues with student transportation.

Jefferson County Public School officials say they have several short and long term solutions to address the issues that led to delayed buses on the first day of school.

When Jefferson County’s public school system started last week, bus drivers weren’t prepared to transport about 65,000 students through a system of newly established routes that offered little space for delays on buses with few navigational tools.

School officials told Jefferson County Board of Education members this week that the problems were the result of a lack of planning, last-minute tweaks to drivers’ routes and a breakdown in communication.

“Quite candidly, we should have taken the bus driver feedback when they first got their routes,” said Marty Pollio, the Jefferson County Public School superintendent. “Our bus drivers told us that the routes were too far and too hard.”

The disaster that ensued led to schools being closed for the past week. Elementary and middle school students will return to classes tomorrow, and high school students will return next week.

In an email to families on Thursday, Pollio said some delays will be expected as students return and he encouraged alternative transportation arrangements.

“While this is not ideal, it is the reality,” he said.

This district website has more information for families to help prepare for the return to school.

Addressing the problems

Pollio said the district is taking steps to fix the issues.

The district increased the number of workers in its “command center” to help improve communication between families, schools and drivers. The center can be reached by calling 485-RIDE. A district spokesperson on Thursday said families should wait about 30 minutes before calling once they realize a bus is delayed.

School officials will use the Edulog Parent Portal Lite app to track buses in real-time to help keep families better informed. Families will also soon have access to the same app once the district finalizes their “ internal systems to support guardian access,” according to an email sent to families Thursday afternoon from superintendent Marty Pollio.

School buses will stop waiting at depots “for extended periods of time,” according to the email. Students running late due to a delayed bus will be transported by a different bus or a JCPS van.

Some of those vehicles are used for Early Childhood Education programs, which will be delayed for at least two weeks.

Some buses will have additional JCPS employees on-board that will use GPS directions to help navigate neighborhoods, according to Mark Hebert, a JCPS spokesperson. These employees will also have access to cell phones — something bus drivers are barred from using. Hebert said more than 200 JCPS employees volunteered to help on the buses.

District officials are also working to streamline and shorten some bus routes. Drivers have spent the past several days practicing the routes.

Drivers knew of coming chaos

Before school started, drivers warned district officials that the new routes would be a problem, said John Stovall, the president of Teamsters Local Union 783, which represents district bus drivers.

“A lot of people knew there were going to be problems, but I don’t think anyone knew it was going to be this bad,” he said in an interview with KyCIR this week.

The new routes were originally designed by Massachusetts-based tech company AlphaRoute, but district officials added stops before school began. Stovall said this complicated an already difficult job and left little room to deal with the many factors that complicate driving a school bus in an American city — traffic delays, weather, and students or schools running late.

“That was the biggest problem, because they didn't have time in between the stops and they didn't factor that into the system itself,” he said.

The district has struggled to fill its roster of bus drivers and last year the problem led to some students being late to school. The new route system, coupled with an overhaul of the district’s school start times, was an attempt to mitigate that problem.

But the changes were too much, too soon, Stovall said.

The driver shortage crisis still plagues the district, too. Today the district has less than 600 drivers, compared with more than 900 drivers a few years ago, according to the email from Pollio.

Bus drivers remain committed, said Mark Hebert, a JCPS spokesman.

He dismissed rumors that the district’s drivers were quitting after the day-one fiasco or that they were requesting to transfer departments.

“It's just not happening,” he said. “Our bus drivers are dedicated employees who are doing their best to get kids to school safely every single school day.”

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

Investigative Reporter Lily Burris is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.