A tough but necessary call on busing for CPS students

The School Board has voted in favor of a resolution directing the district to put special needs students as top priority for bus service, starting in March, if CPS can’t find enough drivers by then.

SHARE A tough but necessary call on busing for CPS students
The School Board on Jan. 26 voted for policy changes to CPS busing to cope with a severe shortage of drivers.

The School Board on Jan. 26 voted for policy changes to CPS busing to cope with a severe shortage of drivers.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

One of the biggest hurdles Chicago Public Schools has faced this school year is transportation, especially for thousands of special needs students.

A severe shortage of bus drivers forced CPS to at one point offer $1,000 up-front and $500 per month to the families of students who were supposed to have transportation to school but weren’t routed on a bus. Hundreds of driver jobs presumably remain open; the district needs 1,200 drivers but at the start of the year, only 500 were on the job.

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So the School Board had little choice on Wednesday when members voted in favor of a resolution directing the district to put special needs students at the front of the line for bus service, starting in March, if CPS can’t find enough drivers to fill the gap by then.

Special education students and homeless children — those whose families lack permanent housing — would have top priority. Then, depending on transportation availability, the families who accepted money will be offered busing instead of cash. At the very bottom of the list: students in magnet and selective enrollment programs, whose bus service would effectively be cancelled.

No one who cares about kids, or the reputation of our public schools, wants to see any child go without transportation. But in this situation, the fairest solution is to put special needs children first.

As board member Luisiana Melendez said Wednesday, the decision was necessary because “We have a legal and moral responsibility as the board to serve those who are most vulnerable.”

The news has us wondering, once again, about the likelihood, of any, of retrieving at least some of the $28.5 million in federal pandemic relief money handed out to bus companies to keep drivers on the payroll once schools shut down in March 2020 because of COVID. Most of the 14 companies that received the money pocketed it while laying off hundreds of drivers, as CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher found in an investigation.

The IG’s office didn’t name any of the companies who kept the money, so it isn’t clear if any of them were involved in the driver shortages.

Any company that kept the cash and laid off drivers has some explaining to do to kids and families who now might be stranded.

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