Parents in Perry Township are pushing back against proposals to eliminate or restrict school choice for elementary school students as a solution for the district’s acute shortage of bus drivers.
The four proposed redistricting plans, which the school board will consider next week, would end guaranteed transportation for students who attend schools beyond their attendance boundaries by eliminating bus routes and reducing the number of required drivers. The number of routes that the different plans would cut ranges from 15 to 36.
But three of the four plans would require about 31% of its elementary school students to change schools because of a change in attendance boundaries. The plans would also affect the options and transportation offerings for more than 300 students who participate in the district’s elementary school choice program.
District officials say the goal is to alleviate an inefficient system that creates long wait times for students and increased work loads for bus drivers. But parents, including those who spoke at a public comment session at a Monday school board meeting, say that gutting the choice program would be unfair to families who choose schools that are the best fit for their child or their schedules.
Across the country, from Chicago to Colorado, schools have struggled to hire bus drivers and other staff, amid intense competition in the labor market. In May, Perry Township voters approved an operating referendum that included $1.5 million for district transportation costs. That funding helped increase hourly bus driver pay from $19 to $23.
But transportation problems have persisted this year. Out of 140 drivers or substitute drivers the district says it needs, it has just 102. And even with patchwork fixes, transportation for hundreds of students is delayed by more than an hour in some instances.
“We’re not getting our kids home in a timely manner,” Associate Superintendent Chris Sampson said in an interview before the Monday meeting. “We’re getting way too many kids home at 5:30, six o’clock at night because they’re waiting on a bus.”
But roughly a dozen parents and their children argued in a public comment session on Monday that it would be better for the district to improve recruitment efforts rather than force hundreds of students to attend a new school next year.
Heather Pease, whose child attends Jeremiah Gray Elementary through the school choice program, said that while she doesn’t blame Perry Township for the challenge in hiring drivers, the district should think carefully about forcing students to shoulder the burden of the “adult problem” of staffing.
“I don’t think it’s fair that I should change schools,” said Lyla Wells, a second grader at Jeremiah Gray Elementary. “I’ve only had one normal year at Jeremiah Gray. I want to have more experiences there until I leave fifth grade.”
The changes could significantly alter the landscape of Perry Township, which is split into two main attendance areas: the east side of Southport and the west side of Perry.
Elementary students are zoned for a neighborhood school, but can choose to attend any of the schools within the east or west side in which they reside with guaranteed transportation. Two schools, Jeremiah Gray Elementary on the Southport side and Rosa Parks Elementary on the Perry side, operate as choice schools for each side and welcome students from each of their respective attendance areas.
But the setup leaves the district with an inefficient transportation system that leaves some buses underutilized, Sampson said.
The district has tried to adapt to its shortage in several ways. Office workers in the transportation department have pitched in and driven buses. Bus drivers take on extra students if a fellow driver does not show up. And students have waited at school after hours for their bus drivers to finish dropping off one group of students before heading back for a second group. But those stopgap measures have only gone so far.
The district is considering four proposals to address the issue.
The first plan would create new attendance boundaries for all elementary schools, end school choice, and require students to attend the school within their attendance boundary.
The second plan would also create new attendance boundaries, but would allow students to attend schools beyond their zoned attendance boundaries if space is available at those schools. In those cases, families would be required to provide their own transportation.
The third option would continue the district’s choice program and would not change attendance boundaries, leaving Jeremiah Gray and Rosa Parks as choice schools. But families attending those or any other schools outside of their assigned boundaries would also still need to provide their own transportation.
The fourth proposal would give students school choice, but within a smaller territory dictated by where students attend kindergarten.
Special education students would still be given transportation to their out-of-boundary programs under these proposals.
The district explored other solutions to the driver shortage, Sampson said, like hiring an outside entity to provide bus services like Indianapolis Public Schools does. But Sampson said those vendors don’t have enough drivers themselves and therefore aren’t taking on new clients.
A new state law passed earlier this year attempts to alleviate the driver shortage by allowing districts to use smaller vehicles such as vans to transport students, and letting them hire drivers without commercial driver’s licenses.
But Sampson said the laws regarding where to pick up children on the street still require drivers of smaller vehicles such as vans would need to pull into the driveways of individual houses, for example, to safely pick up students.
Still, parents urged the district to think of other solutions, noting the change would disrupt families’ schedules in other areas also affected by shortages.
“I understand there’s a bus driver shortage and choice is costly to the district, but there’s also a shortage of child care and affordable child care in our county and our state and in our country,” said Danielle Rhodes, whose children attend Rosa Parks Elementary.
The school board will consider adopting one of the four proposals on Dec. 12.
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