The Perry Township school board voted on Monday to end school choice for elementary students effective next school year to help alleviate a severe bus driver shortage, despite significant opposition from parents.
The 6-0 vote will establish new elementary boundaries for each of the district’s 11 elementary schools, which serve either the east side of Southport or the west side of Perry.
The change means that elementary students will no longer get free transportation to any school in the area where they live. Instead, each student will be assigned to a school within new elementary boundaries redrawn to enable more efficient bus routes. The district reported having only 102 bus drivers for the 140 staff and substitute positions it had as of Dec. 5.
The district also will create attendance boundaries for two schools, Jeremiah Gray Elementary and Rosa Parks Elementary, which will no longer receive students from other neighborhoods.
Families can still choose to send their children to a school outside of their attendance boundary, but only if there is space and if they provide their own transportation.
Officials estimate the plan, one of four options presented to the board, would eliminate the need for 15 to 36 bus routes and would require roughly 2,300 students to change schools.
Board members acknowledged that the decision did not satisfy everyone.
“Nothing’s going to be perfect; we’re a massive, massive district and decisions are often difficult and complicated,” board member Hannah Dale said. “But I know how much we’ve all listened and will continue to listen.”
District officials hope to outline in January rules for the application process for student transfers. Superintendent Patrick Mapes said he hopes the district will process applications and notify students by the March spring break about school assignments for next school year.
“Then we’ll start doing the open houses at those schools to invite the students who currently aren’t there to come into those buildings,” he told reporters after the vote.
Students who attend a choice school or a school outside of their attendance boundary will be given priority to stay at their current school if there is space and families provide transportation, Mapes said.
Parents and students pushed back against the plan before the vote on Monday, arguing that the change would be unfair to students who love their school communities.
Leanor Formo, a third grader at Rosa Parks Elementary, described the challenge of leaving her friends at school when she was diagnosed with cancer before the pandemic.
“What you are doing makes me feel helpless again,” Leanor said. “I don’t want to be scared about starting over without my teacher.”
Parents also urged the district to find another solution to the driver shortage, arguing that the plan does not fix the problem and further disrupts children’s learning after a rough few years from the pandemic.
“This proposal is a loose Band-Aid that will not serve Perry Township’s transportation issues,” said McKenna Allen, whose daughter attends Rosa Parks. “Quite frankly, our children deserve better than a loose Band-Aid.”
Officials said the current choice program creates an inefficient transportation system that leaves some buses underutilized even as the district can’t find enough drivers for all its buses.
Transportation issues have plagued districts across the state and country as schools grapple with a bus driver shortage.
“We’ll be able to reduce the number of students that we’re getting home an hour late from school currently, and we’ll be able to really be more efficient with how we load our buses,” Mapes said. “We have some buses right now that only have 25 to 30 students on them, and we’ll be able to put a lot more students on the buses and be more efficient with our tax dollars.”
Special education students will still receive free transportation to school, as required by law, under the new attendance boundaries.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.