‘We don’t have other options.’ CPS, bus providers see no quick fix for transportation woes

CPS superintendent Iranetta Wright says the district is out of options to fix transportation problems this school year.
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 5:09 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (Enquirer) - It has been three months since Cincinnati Public Schools’ first day of school and 20% of students are still not getting to school on time due to busing issues, according to our media partners with the Enquirer.

That percentage is better than at the start of the school year. In August, 65% of students weren’t getting to school on time, according to district superintendent Iranetta Wright. The district was short 40 buses at the start of the school year; now, it is short 20 buses.

Today’s rate still isn’t ideal. But “currently, we don’t have other options,” Wright said during a Friday afternoon round table. Members of the media joined Wright and representatives from the district’s bus contractors, including:

  • John Ravasio, chief operating officer of Metro.
  • Joe Eversole, GM at First Student.
  • Stacy Bobzean, regional manager at Petermann.
  • Thomas Nicolas, vice president of UTS.

When students are late because of busing issues, they are marked tardy. This affects the district’s chronic absenteeism rate, which was higher last year than in the 2020-21 school year at 53%. The CPS rate is more than 20 percentage points higher than the state average. Students who miss 18 days or more of classes, regardless of excused absences, are considered chronically absent.

“This has been one of the most challenging times for me,” Wright said Friday. “Because it is not something that I am able to immediately fix.”

Wright listed several factors contributing to the district’s consistently late or absent bus routes:

  • The national bus driver shortage.
  • CPS provides transportation to students outside of the district who attend parochial, private and charter schools in the area (as required by the state).
  • The state requires public schools to provide transportation services to students in grades K-8 who live two or more miles from school. CPS exceeds this requirement by providing transportation for all students in K-12 who live one or more miles from school.
  • To try to meet needs, several drivers are running “stacked routes.” These drivers will run a full route and drop kids off at one school before starting over with a different group of kids to get those students to school. The second group is almost guaranteed to be late.
  • District high schools have open enrollment. This means students from across the city need transportation to schools on the other end of town, making for lengthy and complicated routes.
  • Moving students in grades 7 and 8 to yellow buses put a strain on those routes, since those students have traditionally ridden the Metro buses to school. The district is now offering a voluntary switch to Metro for those students to alleviate some of the strain on yellow buses.

Most schools in the district have experienced bus delays. But Wright said late and no-show buses have been most consistent at these schools with stacked routes: Western Hills University High School, Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School, Gilbert A. Dater High School, Shroder High School, James N. Gamble Montessori High School and School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Wright said Friday that the district has exhausted all options to correct these problems for the 2022-23 school year. She is looking to host town hall meetings in January and February and gather information to start next school year on better footing.

“There’s no one easy solution,” Wright said, and will take collaboration among all of the contractors and the greater community. “This is not a quick fix.”

‘Buses just aren’t coming.’ Parents organize over concerns

Two hours after Derek Drifmeyer’s 7-year-old was released from school on Oct. 14, he received an email from the principal of the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

“Unfortunately, we still are waiting for bus route 310,” the email read. “There may have been a mechanical issue, and the bus has yet to arrive. There are 7 students still waiting. I do not have an ETA at the moment.”

Principal Michael Owens wrote that if Drifmeyer could pick his kids up himself, please do so and call the security desk to give them a heads up.

Transportation for Cincinnati Public Schools students has been an issue all year, 38-year-old Drifmeyer, of Silverton, told The Enquirer. He said his 12-year-old did not have a bus come the morning of the first day of school ‒ or for the first couple weeks of school. Two times this fall, his 7-year-old was dropped off 30 minutes early after school, alone, without parents waiting.

He heard other parents were having similar issues, and recently started organizing through Facebook and at school board meetings.

“Buses just aren’t coming in the morning,” or are getting kids to school late, he said. CPS is “basically just not doing the bare minimum that’s required by Ohio state law.”

Wright addressed concerns about transportation at several board meetings already this year.

“It is very much out of our control,” she said at a school board meeting on Oct. 3.

At that time Wright reported that 75-80% of bus riders were arriving on time to school. She said that was better than in August, when 35% of bus riders were getting to school on time.

Cincinnati Federation of Teachers president Julie Sellers also addressed transportation concerns at a school board meeting on Nov. 7. She said kids across the city aren’t able to get to school because of buses not running.

“How are we supposed to increase the achievement of our students when they can’t get to school?” Sellers asked the board. Not all parents can come get their kids after school if the bus can’t bring them home. “As a parent, I would be terrified if I didn’t know where my kid was for two hours.”

Do transportation issues impact academics? Wright says no, as long as teachers and principals follow up

There are several options Wright said the district can look into for next school year, including altered start times and a hub system for yellow buses that would bring students in grades K-8 to one location, and then disperse them to buses headed for certain schools. Placing students in grades 7 and 8 back on Metro buses is also an option.

Eversole from First Student said Friday that the bus driver shortage is not unique to Cincinnati.

“We definitely have seen that nationally,” Eversole said. “I would say that it varies from area to area.”

Indianapolis, for example, has also seen challenges this school year, he said. First Student is the largest bus driver provider in the country and is based in Cincinnati. To address the shortage, First Student and other providers increased driver wages, added sign-on bonuses, and went from six to seven working hours each day.

For the remainder of this year, Wright said she does want to see the district improve its communication with parents, provide accurate information about the bus routes, send out GPS updates if buses are running late, and ensure all proper protocols are being followed when it comes to transportation.

As for the students who are consistently late or missing school because of late or absent buses, Wright said teachers, principals and families are working to get them caught up on missed schoolwork in extended bells and lunchtime groups. She said a survey to district schools at the end of the first quarter showed students who weren’t academically successful were not struggling due to transportation issues.

“The truth is, we cannot get back that actual time that they weren’t in class,” Wright said. “So we have to use additional opportunities.”

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