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JCPS families are choosing schools for next year without knowing if they’ll have transportation

A yellow school bus is stopped in the road. High school students are boarding. A sunrise in the background.
Jess Clark
JCPS students board a bus for their morning route to Waggener High School in October 2023.

Families in Jefferson County Public Schools have until the end of Friday to decide which school they want to send their children to next year. But the district says they can’t guarantee transportation to magnet schools due to a bus driver shortage, throwing a wrench in many families’ plans.

Ninth-grader Kalia Hadley loves her school so much, she wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. and takes two JCPS buses to get there on time.

“It’s wonderful,” Hadley told LPM News, lighting up when she explained her close relationships with teachers and staff at Grace James Academy of Excellence.

Grace James is a middle and high school for girls with an Afrocentric curriculum. Hadley, 14, was drawn to the school’s focus on STEAM — or science, technology, engineering, arts and math. She has her heart set on starting college early and wants to study interior design and architecture.

“They [Grace James] take math and science very seriously, and for me I really wanted to make sure that I had all of that planned out,” she said.

But starting next school year, Hadley may not have a bus to get to her school. That’s because JCPS is considering cutting transportation to Grace James — and all other magnet schools.

About 16,000 JCPS students attend magnets, which are schools with specialized curriculum. So-called “traditional” schools like Male High School or Barrett Middle are also considered magnets. Students have to apply, and not everyone gets in.

Hadley is among thousands of students who have to decide whether they can attend magnets next year if transportation is cut.

“Students are really worried for themselves … because they’ve worked hard to get into the schools that they wanted to,” she said.

Why JCPS wants to cut bus routes

JCPS officials believe cutting magnet transportation may be the answer to providing consistent, reliable transportation to the rest of the district’s 67,000 students who rely on a school bus.

Under the current transportation plan, students are still facing daily delays and disruptions, resulting in over 1 million instructional minutes lost since the start of school in August.

The root of the issue is that JCPS does not have enough bus drivers.

The shortage has been growing for years and reached a tipping point this fall, even though JCPS significantly increased pay in 2021 using federal pandemic relief funds. Some drivers said they are overwhelmed by the long hours, challenging routes and difficult student behavior.

Drivers tend to be older people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the pandemic prompted many drivers to retire. Some say a lack of state transportation funding is also to blame for the district’s inability to attract and retain drivers.

A young teenager poses for a photo against a white brick wall. She's wearing a school jacket.
Jess Clark
Kalia Hadley is a ninth-grade student at Grace James Academy of Excellence.

To make do with fewer drivers, the district rolled out a transportation overhaul that included nine bell times this fall, with the help of a tech company. But that plan failed disastrously on the first day of school.

According to figures provided by the district, JCPS has to cut about 100 routes next fall to provide reliable transportation with the small number of drivers they are projected to have.

“If we want to fix this for next year, it will require getting drivers and routes in line,” JCPS interim Chief Operations Officer Rob Fulk said during a December board meeting.

Fulk said the district projects having between 500 and 520 full-time bus drivers next fall. An average of 50 drivers call in sick each day, which would leave JCPS with 450 to 470 drivers daily.

The district currently has 563 routes.

Cutting transportation for all magnet students, except those with special education plans, would save JCPS about 100 routes, according to Fulk.

Earlier this fall, JCPS leaders were floating less dramatic options, too: cutting all magnet transportation except for students from low-income families or utilizing a hub model, where parents transport their child to a central location where a bus would then pick them up.

But in his presentation this December, Fulk estimated that those options would only help the district whittle down a maximum of 45 routes.

Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Kolb said transportation services have to be cut back for some in order to make the system work predictably for the majority of students.

“I think it seems to me to be a math equation,” Kolb said, responding to the presentation. “I don't feel like it's responsible to have more routes than we have drivers available on any given day. That's how kids definitely miss out on learning.”

Going back to two bell times ‘not an option’

Many families are calling for the district to go back to the two-bell schedule.

District 5 member Linda Duncan told the board she is concerned by how late some students are getting home under the new arrangement.

“When 6:30 at night is a target, that is — to me — unacceptable,” Duncan told Superintendent Marty Pollio, referring to the district’s goal to have all students dropped off by that time.

But Pollio and Fulk said using a two-bell schedule is not possible due to the new student assignment plan implemented this year.

“If we had stayed with our old bell schedule, we would require 850 routes this year with 570-odd drivers, so that is not an option,” Fulk said.

Equity concerns

After a few weeks of hand-wringing, Hadley’s mom Jamique Washington decided to keep her daughter at Grace James next year. Due to their work schedules, neither she nor her husband can drive Hadley on their own, so they’re planning to pay for private transportation if necessary.

“I don’t even know where that money would come from,” Washington said. “We’d have to make it come out of thin air, but I just would hate for her to have to leave the community that she’s already in.”

Not all parents will be able to afford transportation. Nearly two-thirds of JCPS students come from low-income families. That’s raising concerns that the proposal will limit access to groups that are already underrepresented in many magnets: low-income students and students of color, who are more likely to be low-income due to systemic racism.

At this month’s school board meeting, Pollio said it’s an impact he’s considering.

“I think that is the most challenging aspect of this is, ‘Will it impact access to magnets?’ We have a real concern about that,” he told the board.

Washington said she wonders if there might be some unexplored options. She noted that some school districts like New York City Public Schools pay for older students to use public transportation.

JCBE is planning to make a final decision on transportation cuts in February.

JCPS declined to make any staff member available for an interview for this story.

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

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

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