August 18, 2023 12:00pm

JCPS busing crisis

Power Poll members are divided on what to do about the transportation issues at our local schools

Photo of Ms. Lisa Hornung
Louisville, KY Correspondent
article image

Image by Joshua Choate/Pixabay

Jefferson County Public Schools have had a rough start to the new school year. On the first day of school, buses struggled with new routes, and many parents waited until late in the evening for their children to arrive home.

The debacle was so bad on Wednesday, Aug. 9, the district took two days off (Thursday and Friday) plus the weekend to work on the problem. Then it took four more days off because the problem wasn’t fixed. Schools were scheduled to begin for elementary and middle schools today (Friday, Aug. 18), and high schools are scheduled to go back Monday, Aug. 21.

The reasons for this perfect storm of school transportation are many. The district, which runs one of the top 10 largest transportation systems in the country with 66,000 bus riders, started staggering school start times this year, with some high schoolers starting later in the morning. A bus driver shortage contributed to the problem. And the district tried a new approach to its buses this year with a system called AlphaRoute. This MIT-affiliated artificial intelligence program was supposed to make the routes more efficient with fewer drivers. But, well, it didn’t work.

It’s a large district

JCPS, which has more than 96,000 students, has school choice. Students can apply to go to magnet schools, traditional schools, or schools that specialize in whatever subject a child is interested in. This has helped keep students happy by catering to their interests while preventing racial segregation held over from the days of segregated schools, historical redlining and forced busing.

The drawback of school choice is that students often don’t attend schools in their own neighborhoods, which has become a rallying cry for those frustrated with this busing system. One lawmaker, Kevin Bratcher (R-Jeffersontown), introduced a bill in the state house that would require students to be able to attend the school closest to them unless they choose to attend a magnet or traditional school. But the JCPS Board of Education has responded that doing this would essentially resegregate schools and reverse student achievement, especially for minority and economically disadvantaged children.

As of publication time, we don’t know how the staggered start will go, but we’re hoping things run smoothly and the district can get back to its mission of teaching children.

Superintendent Marty Pollio apologized for the debacle and said he believes the problem will make the district better in the long run.

"I am a believer, very much so, no one wants crisis, but I do believe there is opportunity in crisis and an opportunity to significantly improve and get better at what you're doing, and so I do believe crisis and hardship creates that opportunity," Pollio said. "I've said many times that this is the biggest change that we've taken on since the 1970s in JCPS, and it is definitely needed."

Power Poll members speak out

Power Poll members were divided in their opinions. Many continued the cry for neighborhood schools, while others urged patience and the belief that Pollio is doing the best he can.

David Galownia, CEO of Slingshot, had a novel idea: “Ditch the buses. Minivans of 6-8 kids contracted out to parents. No special licenses, vehicle maintenance, or expensive benefits. Shorter bus routes, better knowledge of kids/drivers, less expensive. I bet there are lots of parents with mini-vans already driving kids to and from school who would take some extra kids and get some small income from it.”

Our first poll question asked who is at fault for the First Day of School Disaster.

Twenty percent said Pollio; only 11 % blamed AlphaRoute; nobody blames the bus drivers; 9% blame a lack of bus drivers; and 53% say it’s all of the above. Only 8% said it’s none of the above.

Some Republican lawmakers called on Gov. Andy Beshear to call a special session so that the state can intervene in the JCPS issues. We asked our members what they thought.

Surprisingly, 31% said that the state should be involved; but 61% said the state should stay out of this local issue. Eight percent said they didn’t know.

We asked members if they would let their children ride a JCPS bus again (if they were able).

Power Poll members were more evenly divided here. There were 46% who said they would, while 41% said no. Thirteen percent were unsure.

Our last two questions were open-ended with some insightful answers.

What do you think needs to happen to fix the busing issue?

Below are 58 responses.

  • Full funding of pupil transportation from the legislature as required by law
  • They need to go back to the original start times for all the schools.
  • Neighborhood schools
  • Need more routes, which require more drivers, which has proven to be a real problem.
  • No idea but maybe UPS can help them with their routing system.
  • JCPS needs a total reorganization. Kids should be able to attend school in their own neighborhoods which would make the whole bus debacle avoidable.
  • Consulting with UPS seems like a good step.
  • Senior level JCPS officials must get involved to provide direct oversight of the transportation department. The Department has failed in their responsibility to safely transport students, in a timely manner, to and from school. As with any organization, when a Department head has completely failed in their job duty, the department and its members should be scrutinized for process, accountability, and performance.
  • The Director and Assistant/Deputy Director of Transportation Department at JCPS should be FIRED!!!! The Contract with the consultant with Slpha Route should be canceled and damages filed.
  • Students need to spend less time getting to and from school on buses. In prioritizing school choice and magnet schools, JCPS has failed to offer families quality, convenient neighborhood school options.
  • GPS
  • Bus Monitors
  • Electronic Tags for students to scan when they get on and off
  • Do not bus kids who choose to go outside their cluster. If they want to go to a specific school parents are responsible for budding such as Brown School.
  • District is too large. Split it up into city schools and county schools.
  • Test, test and test again. It’s ridiculous that it wasn’t tested before school began.
  • Raising the pay for bus drivers and providing incentives to hire more. Providing more school resource officers to help enforce good behavior on the buses so that bus drivers aren't also responsible for student behavior. Potentially adding navigation systems to our buses.
  • Adequate funding
  • Let’s try patience. JCPS attempted a massive change in their transportation logistics. Obviously mistakes were made. If they can’t correct them quickly then will be the time to level criticism. We most certainly don’t need Frankfort weighing in so early in the process. All children were safe, albeit with anxiety and inconvenience all around.
  • Should have foreseen the problem and hired more drivers. Should have informed the public of the potential problem
  • Every child needs to go to their neighborhood school. Pour money into the schools that need the most support.
  • I think we need to quit hauling kids all over the county and focus on providing great education options to all neighborhoods with neighborhood schools. The leadership in JCPS is showing huge gaps in competency.
  • Equalize school quality across the entire district - equal facilities, equal educators, equal programming and equal leadership - making it more attractive to stay within your own neighborhood and eliminate distance busing. Bring neighborhoods back together and allow parents to play a greater role by eliminating distance as a barrier to improvement, growth and participation.
  • Looks to me like drivers did not get routes early, did not drive them a time or two to see how long and where they really went, so on day one were utterly unprepared. Now this also means I fear the district did not offer a training day or two (with pay) for this to happen. That goes back on the board, superintendent and all concerned not just the drivers.
  • Need to find a way to get more bus drivers. For this to happen, there needs to be some level of control and discipline on buses.
  • Maybe it is time to look at dividing up the district
  • Return to a simpler start time system.
  • More input from drivers union, more practice on bus routes before school started, more respect given to the challenges bus driver deal with.
  • Sadly, I believe Marty Polio is going to be blamed. And to some extent, he is the superintendent and has responsibility for all operations. But, like any leader of a large organization, he relies upon other leaders to carry out their responsibilities. They failed. And they should be held accountable. I think Polio has done a good job with the education of our kids and overall, is a strong leader.
  • First, this issue is too complex for multiple choice answers. Dr. Polio is doing his best - I actually think he's been a great superintendent. But, AlphaRoute had mixed reviews and I question the decision to utilize this company. I am stunned that the routes weren't driven over and over again prior to the start of school to iron out any problems. The behavior of both students and parents contribute to the lack of bus drivers, which is a big problem. A bus monitor should be on each JCPS bus to assist in navigation; contact with the depot, schools, and parents; managing student behavior; and fielding complaints from parents. Bus drivers are most certainly NOT to blame in this situation.
  • I think the plan that Dr. Polio presented last night is the best possible solution at this time to fix the busing issue. Over time, bus drivers need to be paid a higher wage. There should be incentives for signing on and staying with JCPS. Bus monitors should be on each bus. We should rely more upon our local resources (UPS) to assist in developing routes. We all need to recognize the fact that student behavior is overwhelming both bus drivers and teachers and take significant steps to address that challenge.
  • We need new longer term creative ideas. Ditch the buses. Minivans of 6-8 kids contracted out to parents. No special licenses, vehicle maintenance, expensive benefits. Shorter bus routes, better knowledge of kids/drivers, less expensive. I bet there are lots of parents with Mini-vans already driving kids to and from school who would take some extra kids and get some small income from it.
  • JCPS needs to get out of the transportation business and focus on the education of their students. I think the superintendent needs to be fired and the board recalled for election. Only massive change will alter the tragedy that has become JCPS.
  • Break up JCPS into three or four districts.
  • I saw some chatter about how the state is responsible for funding transportation in local school districts and that it has been underfunding that responsibility for at least 20 years. Fund the system. Pay the drivers more. Make bus driving a job people want.
  • We have to begin to understand as a state (and country) that using private companies (which, understandably and appropriately, have a profit motive) to provide vital services to our public entities is a high risk, low reward proposition. Unfortunately, our elected officials, and, yes, primarily Republican elected officials, push the lowest cost/least taxes expended approach to many issues where the lowest front-end cost often results in significant back-end issues that often end up being more expensive in the long run. Simply providing our state's largest school system with the resources needed to do the job itself (yes, more tax money) likely would have had a higher initial price tag than hiring AlphaRoute, but the cost to "fix" the problem will be significantly more expensive at the end of the day (and that's without even considering the cost to parents, and the economy in general, of having a "surprise" extra week and a half of summer vacation). Private providers - especially those from another state - aren't accountable to "we the people" of Kentucky. And while JCPS may have (and probably does have) contractual claims against AlphaRoute, it shouldn't take the threat of legal action to get kids home on time.
  • Privatizing education has never worked. The only way to fix this issue is to provide the people who are responsible for educating our children (i.e., our future workforce) with the necessary resources to do their jobs. Unfortunately, fiscal conservatism has given way to "no new taxes" in the Republican party, and that mindset simply doesn't work when it comes to public services, especially those that primarily affect our children.
  • And some of these same folks now want to privatize foster care. These people, who are often the loudest, are sadly more concerned about their own bank accounts than they are with protecting our children.
  • Who's responsible for this debacle? We're all responsible. And we need to do better.
  • Neighborhood Schools...
  • MP recent salary increase should be suspended for 6 months minimum. This bus issue is just one of many deficiencies of JCPS. We need better leadership.
  • Stop buying children away from their home areas.
  • Increases in public school funding that provide all districts with the resources they need to support all students and all personnel
  • Identify the specific problems and make improvements. Just like everything else. Better reporting of the nature and extent of the problem would be helpful. Just focusing on the extreme examples is not helpful.
  • Bring whoever is needed to fix the issue. Kids need to be back in school.
  • Then seek accountability from those who created this plan. Was it the consultants? Determine what failed.
  • Yesterday the Superintendent listed about 10 steps that were being taken or planned by JCPS to fix the busing problems. They were all obvious. An explanation of why these steps were not already implemented is necessary and appropriate action should be taken against offenders.
  • A comprehensive review of the issues, an honest assessment of the path forward and personal accountability at all levels. The buck stops with Pollio, but JCPS personnel, for far too long, not been held accountable for their actions and performance.
  • There is no need to bus children in the elementary school. Each school should be teaching the fundamentals. So Elementary schools should be local. The schools that have more need should get appropriate services. Problem children should be addressed out side of the local school if needed.
  • There is no easy fix, but the district tried to do too much at once. It is also trying to implement the new student assignment plan. The student assignment plan should have been phased in over a couple of years while adjusting the classroom start times.
  • JCPS needs to rethink whether they can provide bus transportation to e ery student in a system in which students can now opt for whatever school they want. Priorities are essential.
  • Consider additional ways to get students to the nearest school to their homes.
  • Pay drivers more and look for ways to incent retired teachers or anyone for part-time routes.
  • Stop the busing. We spend too much money in busing and we need to use that money for teachers & police in schools. Only have buses for your local school district. Parents need to be involved in their children's school activities and with someone going to school 20 miles away from home most parents can't be involved.
  • Stop busing across the county- stay within your cluster of schools- otherwise, parents make arrangements i.e., public transportation, family members (let grandparents/extended family be involved).
  • I would start with a meeting with AlphaRoute to get their views on the issue.
  • Get rid of busing. I was a victim of busing. I was beaten by a guy with a wrench in class in the 2nd grade at Norton Elementary School. We moved to Oldham Co. I live in Jefferson Co and employ 300 people. People that attend JCPS are NOT prepared to compete in the work force.
  • Go back to the other plan. The delays built in to the AlphaRoute plan cannot be mitigated without dropping the 5,000 stops that were added. Those stops slowed everything before and will slow everything again.
  • General Assembly should fully find the amounts mandated for transportation, although that’s not a total fix.
  • Better and more training and practice.
  • Prioritize neighborhood schooling over social agendas that bus kids across the city. Support the bus drivers when conflict arises and hold parents accountable for not disciplining their own children.
  • We need to stop busing in Jefferson County. It is absolutely ridiculous the links that we go to to diversify our schools. There are enough neighborhood schools that children should not have to spend hours on the bus each day.
  • The district cannot continue to accommodate every family with bussing.
  • We need more bus drivers and not place a reliance on an outside third party consultant. We should have been listening to the teachers, parents, and academic leaders regarding steps that could be taken to create a bussing and school schedule that works for everyone.
  • They need to start all over! Take a few steps back. They should redistrict and make the trips more manageable.
  • more preparation and practice should have taken place over the summer. Other than that, I think most people aren't qualified to say how it could be fixed, I'm sure it's a very complicated issue.
  • Please read the CJ article Louisville's desegregation myth: How a busing plan hurt Black communities it aimed to help, published Feb 3, 2021. The problem isn't the busing, the problem is that we shouldn't be busing students all across the district. JCPS has been doing this for 40 years and it hasn't helped our community issues with DE&I so why do we continue to think this is a solution. We have to do something different.

What other issues do you see that need to be fixed in JCPS?

Below are 39 responses.

  • State legislature interference
  • Dismiss the entire board. Focus on children, neighborhoods and families. Scratch the crazy late start times.
  • Need to spend the dollars needed to fix the primary issue. Not enough buses and not enough drivers for the existing buses they have
  • Kids should not be passed to the next grade if they don’t meet the standards.
  • JCPS leadership and the members of the Board of Education need to listen to and communicate effectively with all stakeholders.
  • A lot!
  • "JCPS operates 167 schools with 96,000 students, making it the 29th largest school district in the United States."
  • Perhaps trying to operate the 29th largest school district in the 54th largest metro is the inherent challenge.
  • Not sure
  • It should be divided into 3 districts.
  • They seem to have their focus on the wrong things. JCPS should focus on what's best for the students, not the teachers and administrators. JCPS is failing to provide our children the best education, especially with their huge budget.
  • I think the problem is fundamentally the structure of Jefferson County Schools and lack of support from the current School Board for strategic impact outside of raising more money. It is too large to manage without waste and confusion. A $2 billion budget for 100,000 students equals $20,000 per student. Private school provide much greater value for that investment and I think JCPS should be held to that standard.
  • Not too many, which is why our right-wing legislature needs to butt out. All they want is for kids to be sent to charter or Christian schools and not the JCPS or other public schools. The students need to experience diversity and the legislature will do everything they can to close out any avenue for that to happen. No to any special session!
  • While I am 100% for the Intergration of schools, maybe it is time to move back to neighborhood schools.
  • My main point about this, is how much involvement and/or sense of belonging will a family be with a school if it is on the other side of town?
  • Need to keep it all JCPS so not to get stuck in the property tax issues in other States, which makes education uneven.
  • The most significant and complex issues underlie the public school system but are born by our children and public school staff. Food insecurity, houselessness, mental health and learning differences, income disparities...
  • Public schools are underfunded across the country and JCPS is no exception. Addressing core issues such as poverty, gun control, and racial / ethnic division are key to moving forward in a positive manner. When students and teachers (and bus drivers) are afraid of violence when they are coming to school / work, we have a serious problem.
  • Class sizes should be cut in half and the number of teaching and support staff should be doubled. Make sure both students AND teachers feel like they have the support they need in the classroom. Deliver special education services when children start to show delays rather than waiting until a student is one or two standard deviations below the norm - too far behind to ever really catch up.
  • Culture. I seriously doubt drivers and staff were blind to the issue before it happened. Leadership needs to facilitate a culture where people are listened to and ideas and problems can be brought forward with a genuine desire to solve them regardless of title or responsibilities. JCPS does not foster a collaborative team environment.
  • Stop the failed experiment of busing. Return to district schools where the student goes to the school in their district. This will make schools a part of their community again and restore the balance of excellence among schools. Teachers will want to teach in their neighborhood. Oh and maybe we won't need all those buses.
  • Our school board is an incompetent group of union-backed synchophants.
  • Discipline! This is the .ain't reason for the lack of teachers and bus drivers in the district.
  • A lack of state funding for public school
  • None that I know of.
  • Our education system needs better infrastructure and higher pay for teachers and admins.
  • Lack of academic rigor and the assumption that just because a child is poor and/or a minority, they can’t learn at a high level
  • The first logical step is to replace the School Board and then the focus of each school should be to teach students basic math, reading and writing skills.
  • Our schools are failing, because expectations are so low for students and staff.
  • Those preventing the schools from actually teaching basic skills to JJCPS students need to be removed and replaced.
  • A general honesty about their primary function (education...not social justice) and a willingness to actually implement solutions that benefit the entire community, not just special interests.
  • JCPS has alot of kids and keeping the system diverse is a challenge.
  • Bussing kids across town has some negative effects on family participation and making friends in your neighborhood.
  • State Government/politics should stay out of it.
  • Vouchers for private schools should be allowed. One argument is it creates a brain drain on the remaining schools, but so do magnet schools. I think when you give the schools the power to remove problem kids the setting for the majority of students gets better.
  • We are to focused on individual rights and we are no longer looking out for the majority of kids. I am not saying not to provide services but provide them in away that it does not negatively impact the majority.
  • My daughter is a special needs teacher, and in the past had to restrain a child with 5 other teachers. My question to her was where are the other kids?
  • The district needs a stronger school board.
  • JCPS has grown with annual bandages applied from merger to integration to efforts to remedy disparities. Universities have not been reliable partners, certainly not leaders, as demonstrated by reading science studies. It's deep breath time. Focus on practical educational priorities for this community's children. Partner with the Chamber of Commerce, unions, and universities with a genuine 5 year plan to produce educated, skilled graduates. Right now, JCPS is holding back Louisville rather than leading the way!
  • Implement programs and means to support kids with issues whether that be poor discipline, food insecurity, lack of parenting etc. But also provide ways to remove them from classrooms when causing disruptions to kids that just want to learn in a safe environment.
  • GPS on buses, better communication much earlier than week before the start of the school year - maybe end of school year host briefings within schools about what the next year busing schedules will look like.
  • Fire Polio. Elect a new school board.
  • Student behavior and a lack of consequences for bad behavior. Lack of consequences for disrupting learning and hurting others is interfering with learning, as evidenced by dropping scores.
  • Too large. Needs to broken into smaller districts.
  • I don't work there, so it's difficult to form an opinion that will be shared in a public format. The general public needs to stop tearing down public education and be more supportive. The future of this country depends on public education if they want all children to have an opportunity to have a better life than the generations before them. I'm completely exhausted with the attacks on public educators--they don't get paid enough to put up with the nonsense.
  • Not sure
  • Pay teachers more and increase investment to low-income area schools.
  • Addressing the needs of diverse learners. Students who require special education services should be identified earlier and receive instruction based on their needs.
  • Bus tracking.
  • Differential invest in West End schools, including after school programs, so there are strong vibrant schools that student want to attend and where they will achieve.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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