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Audit reveals JCPS botched transportation rollout the result of sprawling central office failures

Young students smile as they descend the stairs of a school bus.
J. Tyler Franklin
Students get off the bus at Schaffner Elementary for the first day of the 2023-2024 school year in JCPS.

A third-party audit of the Aug. 9 transportation debacle details multi-department failures and workplace culture problems in Jefferson County Public Schools’ central office.

A shoddy plan, poor decision-making and a problematic workplace culture in Jefferson County Public Schools were all to blame for the disastrous first-day-of-school transportation meltdown, according to an independent audit released Monday.

The third-party audit, requested by the Jefferson County Board of Education and conducted by Prismatic Services Inc., concluded the Aug. 9 unraveling was the result of “less than best practice levels” among JCPS central office staff and AlphaRoute, the tech company that designed the routes.

From the beginning, there were red flags. JCPS entered into a no-bid contract with AlphaRoute — a company with a history of botched rollouts — and never verified its references.

JCPS had to tack on several thousand stops after AlphaRoute overlooked commutes, including stops for almost two whole schools and accommodations for students with disabilities.

On-the-ground employees were ignored when they warned against the ill-conceived routes. Later they feared retribution if they shared information and data with auditors.

Auditors made these discoveries even as JCPS employees may have tried to hide their communications. Investigators say they expected to be able to gather more information from emails, but were surprised by the lack of email documentation.

“One possible alternative explanation is that the emails never existed. This possibility was perhaps supported by a JCPS leader who stated they felt encouraged to use cell phone texting instead of district email because it was perceived that texting was less subject to open records requirements,” auditors wrote.

JCBE Vice Chair and District 3 Board Member James Craig said the board received the audit last Monday.

“I’m frustrated with the internal failures that led to the first-day-of-school debacle. Our superintendent assures us that he now has the correct person in the [chief operating officer] position going forward,” Craig told LPM News.

Asked if Craig thought any action should be taken against Pollio, he said “we expect these issues to be resolved,” but declined to explain further.

In an emailed statement, JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert outlined several steps JCPS “has already taken or committed to take to improve transportation outcomes next school year,” including hiring an in-house routing team.

The board chose to release the 248-page audit a day before members are scheduled to vote on cuts to magnet transportation that JCPS central office staff say will fix the problems created by the botched plan and driver shortage.

In their report, auditors warn against cuts to magnet transportation as “inequitable.”

Bad decision-making and project management

In months of onsite visits, data and records collection and interviews with JCPS central office staff and school principals, auditors found evidence that there was “little in the way of active project management” for any of the major simultaneous overhauls that contributed to the meltdown.

This school year, JCPS rolled out not only a new routing system, but also a new student assignment plan and a complex new school start time schedule. The auditors note that all three of these initiatives were interrelated: the roll out of the new student assignment plan relied on the implementation of new routes and new bell times.

One major failing, according to the auditors, is that top district staff did not adequately communicate that a change in bell times and routing would be necessary when they pitched the student assignment overhaul in 2022.

They say staff should have included the proposed bell time and routing changes as part of the entire student assignment proposal, which the board greenlit in 2022.

“Packaging [school start times] changes as a necessary consequence of a previous decision deprives the school board and the public of the right to make a considered decision,” auditors wrote.

The NAACP of Louisville had a similar critique of the district, and is threatening to withdraw its support of the student assignment plan, saying they were not provided all the information about its impacts.

Miscommunications with AlphaRoute

According to the report, many issues were caused by AlphaRoute’s staff failure to collect appropriate information from JCPS staff, as well as JCPS staff’s unclear and sometimes uninformed responses.

For example, when AlphaRoute asked JCPS staff how many seconds they should allow for students to unload per stop, a JCPS employee wrote back “60?” AlphaRoute proceeded with allowing 30 seconds per stop.

AlphaRoute also never asked questions regarding transportation for special education students, “despite general industry acknowledgement that loading of students in wheelchairs requires substantially more time than loading an ambulatory student.”

Auditors also found there were built-in flaws in AlphaRoutes plan. The tech company arranged for many students to arrive just five minutes before the bell and also planned to have students picked up 40 minutes after dismissal.

“Intentionally scheduling a bus to arrive at a school after afternoon dismissal places burdens on the school-based staff to provide supervision,” auditors write.

In their route design, which was delivered behind schedule, AlphaRoute mistakenly left off thousands of students’ stops, including stops for almost two entire schools. In the early days after the debacle, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters one reason the plan failed was that JCPS staff added thousands of stops after AlphaRoute created the plan.

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

Auditors estimate several thousand routes staff tacked on were “necessary to mitigate flaws in the original routing plan.”

Furthermore, the report concluded the decision to contract with AlphaRoute was not well-vetted in the first place.

JCPS entered into a “sole-source” contract with AlphaRoute, a contract that is only allowed when a company is the only vendor that can provide the requested service. However, auditors’ investigation “indicated a lack of research and documentation as to why sole sourcing for the services was selected and why the particular vendor was selected.”

Staff never verified AlphaRoute’s references, according to the auditors, even though news reports had already made public previous issues with AlphaRoute software in Columbus and Cincinnati.

Workplace culture issues

Report authors found poor coordination between JCPS departments, a disregard for the warnings of on-the-ground employees, and even fears of retaliation among some staff if they shared information with auditors.

“Some employees noted that they feared retribution for providing Prismatic with information. These communications faults appear to be a problem of corporate culture,” the report reads.

The authors also wrote that one of the limitations of their study was that some JCPS employees “explicitly or tacitly” expressed fears of retaliation for sharing information or data with auditors.

“In Prismatic’s experience, the number of interviewees expressing these types of concerns was higher than usual,” the report says.

Auditors describe the implementation of the plan as “top-down” with little communication between departments, and almost no inclusion of the transportation department — a decision described as a “key failure” that led to the debacle.

“Some staff reported being ignored when they sounded alarms. When interviewed regarding activities leading up to August 9th, multiple staff noted a negative environment in the central office that discouraged questions and collaboration,” auditors write.

Another limitation auditors note is that JCPS employees are not abiding by state record retention laws. Several principals reported to auditors they felt they were missing emails, and auditors said they “expected to be able to gather more email documentation than was ultimately available.”

According to the report, the lack of emails may be explained by the fact that one JCPS leader said staff “felt encouraged” to text instead of email, a practice they believed would skirt public records requests.

LPM News is currently suing JCPS to obtain texts from Aug. 9 and 10, as well as AlphaRoute emails the district is withholding.

'Unsubstantiated' narratives

Auditors also find that JCPS staff made “unsubstantiated” statements during board meetings in promoting the rerouting plan, including the assertion that JCPS’ transportation system before the overhaul was “the most complex across the nation … leading to inefficiencies.”

“It is no more complex than Prismatic has encountered in many other school districts,” the auditors wrote.

The auditors also contend that JCPS staff don’t actually know how many students they are transporting. JCPS staff regularly shared with the public and the board that 67,000 students are JCPS bus riders. But Prismatic authors said state data shows around 50,000 students were being bused in the 2022-2023 school year.

Finally, auditors pushed back against the district’s contention that JCPS’ transportation policy is too permissive for magnet students.

“Any number of districts routinely provide transportation to magnet students,” the report says.


The report lands on 16 recommendations, including:

  • Creating better procedures for collaboration between departments
  • Reviewing options for adjusting start times before the fall
  • Reworking the AlphaRoute routes
  • Adopting an integrated camera, GPS and routing system
  • Providing better-documented information to the board and to the public on major policy decisions
  • Improving contracting practices
  • Evaluating the potential for using more depots

Notably, report authors do not recommend cutting magnet transportation, and in fact warn against it.

“Doing so would be inequitable,” the report reads.

The school board is voting Tuesday on whether to move forward with cuts to magnet transportation, despite concerns by the Louisville NAACP and others that the plan will take educational opportunities from low-income students and even force some programs to close.

Craig, the JCBE District 3 member, said he will likely support the plan.

“We can’t continue to operate an inoperable system,” Craig said. “I think it would be negligent to open up the 2024-2025 school year running more routes than we have drivers.”

The proposal would ax transportation for most magnet students, but staff say it will allow for reliable transportation for the rest of the 96,000 students who are in “reside” or home schools.

“It seems to me the best policy solution is to focus on the reside schools, but nobody’s happy with where we are,” Craig said.

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

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