Cincinnati schools left to find new buses for students in 2022-23 as SORTA ends contract

Metro to end years-long contract with CPS
Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 3:01 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (CINCINNATI ENQUIRER) - A decades-long partnership between Cincinnati Public Schools and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority will come to a close at the end of this school year. Exactly how CPS students will be shuttled next school year isn’t clear as of now, although it will likely be on a charter service.

The decision came to light after the district began soliciting bids from Metro and other charter bus companies, effectively disqualifying Metro from its process because the transit authority cannot compete with charter operators under federal law. As an act of “good faith,” the operator of the Metro bus service agreed to credit $2.2 million to CPS for unused bus passes.

On Wednesday, the transit authority informed CPS that it believes “it is in our mutual best interest” to not extend its contract with the district past its scheduled end date on June 30, 2022.

“We believe this would provide CPS with sufficient time and funds to select a new provider to meet CPS’ needs and adequate time to communicate with your student families regarding the change in transportation provider in the coming school year,” SORTA Chief Operations Officer John Ravasio wrote.

Krista Boyle, chief communications and engagement officer for the school district, told The Enquirer in a Thursday statement that the district is in receipt of Ravasio’s letter.

“It is important to note that this does not impact current service for students for the remainder of this school year. SORTA also shared their commitment to continue to assist CPS schools, students and families with concerns that remain in the wake of the elimination of Xtra routes over the summer,” Boyle said.

The transit authority’s most recent contract with CPS was dated Dec. 13, 2017, though the two institutions’ partnership goes back decades. Metro has bussed Cincinnati students to and from school all that time through designated Xtra routes.

But those routes were canceled at the beginning of this school year due to bus driver shortages. The transit authority claims that decision was made mutually with the district, but CPS board members said the news came as a shock.

CPS officials and district families were outraged, worried about travel times, safety and logistics as students were made to use the normal Metro routes.

The district’s board of education has also voiced concerns over the last several months, and officials say many families have opted out of the bus system entirely. Those that do use the Metro buses often arrive to school late, with 82% of surveyed CPS principals indicating student arrival times are worse than previous years.

The transit authority has agreed to credit the district $2.2 million for unused bus passes, though Metro claims the district has not returned more than 4,800 bus passes CPS deems have gone “unused.”

CPS administrators said the transit authority was asked to deactivate 6,500 district student bus passes, and another 1,260 bus passes for private school students.

Because of the decrease in ridership, the district requested a $2.4 million credit from the transit authority to account for the unused bus passes.

The district initially asked for more than 14,400 student bus passes in August, for a total contract cost of $4.5 million, according to the transit authority. Since then, the district has requested an additional 1,200 passes, bringing the total contract cost to $4.8 million.

“We have been pleased to see that student ridership on Metro has stabilized to pre-pandemic numbers with approximately 9,000 student trips taken each school day,” transit authority CEO and General Manager Darryl Haley wrote in a Thursday letter to CPS Interim Superintendent Tianay Amat.

Under the contract, the school district can return any unused bus passes for full credit by Oct. 31. But while CPS requested a cost adjustment for 7,772 unused passes, Haley’s letter states the district has only returned 2,920. That number of passes would result in a nearly $920,000 adjustment.

The transit authority has agreed to credit the district a total of $2.2 million anyway, though, in what Haley wrote was Metro’s “continued effort to support CPS and its student riders, and as an act of good faith.”

“Despite the unprecedented circumstances surrounding our service challenges and our ongoing efforts to address those challenges, it has been made clear on multiple occasions that CPS leadership remains unsatisfied with the level of service that we are able to provide at this time,” Haley wrote. “It has also been made clear that the administration is unwilling to work with us towards any other solution outside of demanding the return of Xtra service, which, we have communicated extensively, is not feasible.”

What will transportation look like next school year?

It’s not clear yet how CPS students will get to and from school come next August. It likely won’t be through any form of Metro service, though, as the transit authority has not submitted a bid to provide the district’s pupil transportation services.

According to Haley’s letter, the district has solicited bids from various transportation service providers, including Metro, for chartered bus service. But Metro cannot compete with private charter operators due to federal law.

It seems the district’s transportation needs have “extended beyond what Metro(...) is legally authorized to provide,” Haley wrote in response to the district’s request for proposal.

This response came after the district’s latest request to restore Metro’s Xtra routes, though the transit authority has repeatedly stated that the solution is logistically impossible due to driver shortages and other challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

School board president Carolyn Jones sent a letter to Metro leadership on Nov. 3, listing the consequences of the elimination of Xtra service routes: fewer students using Metro to get to school, tardiness and students remaining on school campuses much later in the afternoons.

“Restoring the Xtra service routes is a critical issue for CPS,” Jones wrote. “Concerns about high school transportation have been raised at every Board of Education meeting this school year.”

The district has filed a public records request with the transit authority to corroborate its own surveys showing low rider turnout and decreased timeliness compared to previous school years. Boyle said the transit authority has yet to complete the district’s request.

In the meantime, it looks as though the district will be looking elsewhere for future student transit options.

“The CPS Board of Education and Administration will continue to discuss transportation options publicly and transparently, including a potential pilot of yellow bus transportation for seventh and eighth graders,” spokeswoman Boyle told The Enquirer. “Equity, and specifically the need for all students to have access to safe and reliable transportation will continue to guide decisions as CPS moves forward. We are committed to keeping families and students updated as options are considered and decisions are finalized.

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