A version of this story was originally published by Manual RedEye. The original version of the story can be found here.
It has been over three months since the first day of school transportation disaster for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). JCPS instituted a new school start time plan that coincided with the unveiling of a new transportation system at the start of the school year. They reconstructed all of their bus routes with the help of the Massachusetts based company, Alpha Routes. It did not, however, go according to plan. Overcrowding and long and complicated routes led to some students not getting home until as late as 10 pm. Somehow the problems the new transportation plan was supposed to fix were, instead, exacerbated.
“Last year, I had students who were regularly late for school. Their bus wouldn't come until 9:15 or 9:20 [for a 7:40 start time],” State Representative Tina Bojanowski told The New Edu. In addition to being a legislator in Frankfort, Bojanowski is a special education resource teacher in JCPS, so she has seen first hand the negative effects of the transportation issues on students and classrooms. “Even with all the restructuring, I think there are still so many shortages of drivers. I'm not sure that the problem has been solved,” she said.
JCPS was forced to cancel six days of school and implement a staggered return, with elementary and middle school students returning on Aug. 18, and high school students returning on Aug. 21, to allow time to attempt to fix some of the problems occurring on the 9th. The hope was to allow bus drivers more time to practice their routes without students. JCPS was only able to add back 2 of these missed days.
There were rumors that bus routes would be altered and improved after fall break in early October, but no changes transpired. Challenges continue, and in fact, many JCPS bus drivers implemented a “sick out” at the beginning of November to protest low pay and behavior issues, leaving many students without transportation to or from school once again.
It should be noted, however, that transportation issues are not plaguing JCPS alone. Bullitt County regularly has to cancel bus routes due to driver shortages. Daviess County started their school year late last year due to a bus driver shortage. And while attention was focused on JCPS’ struggles, Fleming County delayed their start date this school year also for “operational reasons.” “This is not just JCPS. This is across the state. Across the state, there are districts that cancel routes,” Bojanowski said.
Given the statewide nature of this issue, what responsibility does the state government have in implementing a solution? What could state lawmakers have done to prevent the bus issues, and what can they do to ensure a transportation “catastrophe” of this magnitude does not happen again? With the legislative sessions beginning on Jan. 2, no doubt these questions will be on legislators' minds, and many solutions will be introduced in the form of policy changes.
One such policy would be allowing bus drivers to use GPS on their routes. “One thing that shocked me is that the bus drivers actually were doing all their routes with a packet of stapled-together papers,” Bojanowski said. She wants to change the current statutes or regulations that prevent the use of GPS while still maintaining student safety.
Another solution many are calling for is more funding from the state to hire and retain bus drivers. A nationwide shortage of bus drivers led to the new start time and transportation plans JCPS instituted this school year. “Part of the reason that there has been this loss of bus drivers in various places, especially Jefferson County, is that there are just better paying alternatives,” Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy told The New Edu. “It's a part time, part year job, and you could just make a lot more money if you have a commercial driver's license driving for UPS or some other company. So, there really has to be a big increase in salary, and the legislature can and should help with that,” Bailey said.
While better pay could be a solution to the bus driver shortage, not everyone agrees that it is the state's responsibility to give the district more money. “If you look at how transportation is funded across the state, to say that JCPS has been underfunded is incorrect, or, not factual because JCPS is funded at the same percentage that Owsley County is, that Oldham County is, that Pike County is. Each county or each district gets the same percentage of funding,” Republican Senator Julie Raque Adams, also of Louisville, said, “If JCPS felt as if they were being underfunded, they did not communicate that with the members of the General Assembly.”
It would be naive to think that the General Assembly would easily come to a consensus about funding education transportation, as every lawmaker has different ideas about what has caused districts’ transportation woes and how to solve them. “Everyone thinks that these issues are funding, like somehow funding is going to magically solve the bus crisis or our learning loss or, you name it. And really, that's a very simple way to think about these big issues,” Raque Adams said.
In actuality, the state has a statutory obligation to fund 100% of transportation costs for students, but Bailey and The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found the legislature has not met that requirement since 2005. “This was part of major education reform in Kentucky in 1990. This was a commitment the state made following a Supreme Court ruling that said that Kentucky’s school system was not being adequately or equitably funded by the legislature, and so one of the remedies was to say, ‘Ok, transportation costs will go to the state, and they’ll pay that’,” Bailey explained. However, beginning in 2005 the legislature suspended the law, avoiding paying the full costs, even though, as Bailey explains, there is a large budget surplus in Frankfort. “It would be very affordable for them to pay this full cost, but they're choosing not to,” Bailey said, “When you look at Jefferson County, it's actually quite a bit of money they're being shorted. In the current year, it's about $19 million. If you look over the last four years, it's $104 million,” Bailey said.
“Since this is a problem that does affect every single public school district in Kentucky, and every single county, I'm hoping that legislators will understand and appreciate the importance,” Representative Lisa Willner told The New Edu. “School districts across Kentucky are missing out on this funding, and so the responsibility, that is really the state's responsibility, has been pushed on to school districts,” she explained. Willner served on the Jefferson County School Board for one term before becoming a state representative. She has made it her mission while in Frankfort to advocate for public education. “ As a school board member, you're acutely aware of how much is decided in Frankfort. So, while the school board has certain authority and ability to make certain decisions, it's all very much influenced and, in some cases, dictated by decisions that are made in the state legislature,” Willner said.
Kentucky students, parents and employees will have to wait to see what the 2024 legislative session will bring, but it is clear that improving the transportation situation is a top priority for lawmakers, regardless of party.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle encourage students to communicate their needs and reach out to their legislators. “I want students to know that we want to hear their voices. We want to know what you think,” Bojanowski said.
“Reach out and engage, and tell us what's working and what's not working,” said Raque Adams.
“I hope students will not only value their public education, but also advocate for it,” Willner said, “That would be my hope, that student voices could be really lifted up in this effort, and for people to stand up for their school and for their teachers and for their school district.”
Learn how to contact your state legislators here.