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JCPS staff say cutting all magnet and traditional transportation is the only way to go

Josiah Burton speaks before the Jefferson County Board of Education
Jess Clark
Josiah Burton addressed the Jefferson County Board of Education about a proposal that would cut transportation to magnet and traditional schools.

Top staff in Jefferson County Public Schools say the only solution to the district’s busing predicament is to stop transporting all 16,000 magnet and traditional students. Some community members disagree.

As Jefferson County Public Schools continues to grapple with a bus driver shortage and the fallout of a disastrous transportation overhaul, top officials from Kentucky’s largest school district say cutting transportation for 16,000 magnet and traditional students is the only fix.

“It’s the only option we've ascertained that will facilitate on-time service with fewer routes, and this minimizes lost instructional time across the district,” JCPS Chief Operations Officer Rob Fulk told the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday.

Students whose transportation needs are part of their special education plan, students facing homelessness and students assigned to alternative schools would still be guaranteed transportation — along with all students who attend their “resides” school, or home school. That’s the vast majority of JCPS’ 95,000 student body.

Many students, parents and community members, however, are worried the proposal will mean fewer low-income students and students of color will be able to access magnets and their unique opportunities.

Staff’s rationale

Fulk said the district needs to reduce the number of routes to 474 or fewer to make do with the 562 drivers JCPS anticipates having next year. That would allow the district to keep all routes covered, even when drivers take sick days. Around 52 drivers are absent each day on average, Fulk said.

According to the staff presentation, of the options presented, cutting magnet and traditional program transportation is the only solution that would slash enough routes. They estimate that all students would be dropped off by 6:15 p.m. on average each evening.

Staff explored using a hub model, where magnet students travel to a central location on their own and a bus takes them the rest of the way to school. Fulk said staff also considered transporting magnet students on free and reduced-priced lunch, but neither of those options would eliminate enough routes.

The hub option also presented additional challenges, according to Fulk. Finding an appropriate property would be “challenging,” Fulk said, and could come with liability issues. Traffic flows would also be impacted “significantly.”

Fulk pointed to other comparable school districts that do not provide transportation to magnet schools. Many of those districts require students to rely on public transportation, including Miami-Dade County Schools in Florida, Metro Nashville Schools, and Long Beach School District in California.

Going back to a two-bell schedule is “not an option,” Fulk said, and would require hundreds more drivers than the district can hire.

Though staff are zeroing in on cutting nearly all magnet transportation, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said Tuesday’s presentation was informational only. He said staff needed another four weeks to five weeks before bringing a final proposal to the board for a vote.

Students speak out about equity concerns

Both Fulk and Pollio acknowledged that the main drawback of ending magnet busing is that it would make those schools less accessible to students who rely on district transportation — disproportionately low-income students and students of color.

“There were concerns around racial equity,” Pollio said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The district has long faced criticism that many of its magnet and traditional programs are too hard to get into for low-income students, Black students and students from other marginalized groups.

Many parents and community groups, including the Louisville Urban League and NAACP oppose cutting magnet transportation over equity concerns. That was echoed by several students from W.E.B. Dubois Academy, who spoke out against the proposal during public comment.

“I go to school with Black people, white people, rich people and poor people, and always have. And your proposal threatens all of that,” 17-year-old Josiah Burton said.

“For low-income families specifically, the possibility of providing transportation for their magnet students will be substantially low — furthering the educational gap between social classes,” 16-year-old Gregory Collins said.

Dubois student Nehemiah Clements, 17, said he worried about students that would have to transfer schools, especially rising seniors.

“Next year, I will be in the 12th grade, and the thought of having to go to my home school because I may not have transportation to the school I've been attending since the sixth grade makes me anxious and slightly grieves me,” he said.

Staff clarified during the meeting that W.E.B. Dubois Academy and its sister school Grace James Academy of Excellence are both considered “A5” schools, or alternative programs. A5 schools would be guaranteed transportation under the option staff presented. The Dubois school and Grace James are the only magnets that would be granted transportation under the proposal floated Tuesday.

Louis Chavez Mora, another Dubois student, told LPM News he thought the board should consider other options.

“I think there are many alternatives the board can take,” he said. He added that the Dubois Black Student Union is working on its own list of possible solutions to present to the board.

After hearing staff’s presentation, District 6 JCBE member Corrie Shull, the chair of the board, warned that if the proposal presents racial equity concerns, the district should consider more “creative” alternatives.

“I want to say openly in a full-throated way: We don't need to move forward with any option that has concerns around racial equity. That undermines our commitment as a district,” he said.

He urged staff to initiate private meetings with Louisville Metro Government for help finding a solution. Staff said they spoke in an open meeting before Metro Council but had not reached out for more in-depth private dealings.

“It’s fine to go in front of the council, but we need to ask for a closed-door meeting,” Shull said.

Conversations are underway with TARC, according to Pollio. While no agreement has been reached, the district is working on getting JCPS middle and high school students free access to TARC, and ensure a stop within walking distance of each middle and high school.

How we got here

The root of the district’s busing debacle is a severe shortage of bus drivers. The number of people willing to drive for JCPS has been steadily declining for years, forcing the district to cut and consolidate routes. JCPS is currently transporting more than 60,000 students with just 558 drivers. That’s a little more than half the drivers the district employed 10 years ago, according to Pollio.

Last school year under the old two-bell schedule, many students faced regular delays, with some buses arriving hours into the school day. The transition to a new, complex student assignment plan in August meant JCPS had to add more routes, but the district had even fewer drivers. A change to bell times and a routing plan designed by the Boston-based tech company AlphaRoute was supposed to be the fix. But that plan imploded on the first day of school, leaving students stranded for hours at schools, bus compounds or, sometimes, in unknown neighborhoods. Bus drivers said they warned higher-ups for weeks that the plan was not going to work, but that no one listened.

JCPS reassigned former Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins, the top official in charge of busing. Records obtained in October show he will continue to collect his $195,000 salary for the remainder of the school year. His annual salary will drop to $148,000 next year, unless he is rehired at a higher rate.

The district has been limping along under a patched-up version of the AlphaRoute plan ever since. Thousands of students arrive after school starts daily, robbing children of hours of instructional time. Black, Latino, Asian and low-income students are losing the most class time.

Meanwhile the district continues to lose drivers. Many drivers say they are struggling with the long hours and difficult student behavior. JCPS lost 99 of the drivers it started the school year with, though 68 new drivers have been hired.

Staff say they’ve increased pay to the point that a few longtime drivers are making more than $75,000 a year. The average JCPS bus driver pay is $55,200 a year.

The district is still looking for drivers. Here is a link to the application.

JCBE’s next meeting is March 5.

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

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