Amid driver shortage, CPS board calls for special ed students to get busing over magnet school kids

Bus services for magnet and selective enrollment students could be canceled in early March if the district is unable to resolve problems that have plagued the school system since August.

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Schools nationwide have been hit by a school bus driver shortage this year.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In an effort to support students in special education and those experiencing homelessness who have been without busing this school year, the Board of Education has called on Chicago Public Schools officials to reprioritize access to transportation by canceling services for magnet and selective enrollment students.

The changes would go into place in early March if by the end of February the district hasn’t solved its transportation problems that have plagued the school system since the first day of classes in August.

School districts nationwide have struggled to find and hire bus drivers, and in Chicago the district started the school year with only 500 of the 1,200 bus drivers needed to meet transportation needs for 20,000 children. Special education students, who make up half that total group, have been disproportionately affected.

CPS offered $1,000 up front and $500 per month to the families of any students who were supposed to have transportation but weren’t routed on a bus. More recently, smaller passenger vehicles with an accompanying aide have been offered to families.

But the problems haven’t been resolved. There are still 631 special education students without routes, down from around 1,500 when classes paused for winter break last month. Many of those children are legally entitled to transportation under their Individualized Education Plan.

The Board of Education has discussed changes with district management over the past few months, and officials have tried to secure new bus vendors to fill in the gaps. But feeling insufficient progress has been made, the board unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday at its monthly meeting at CPS headquarters calling for policy changes if solutions aren’t found soon.

“Despite adding new transportation vendors and routes and offering financial assistance to families who have used alternatives to district-provided transportation, the district has been unable to secure enough school bus drivers to meet all of the district’s transportation needs and must prioritize transportation for students legally entitled to transportation,” a school board resolution on the transportation policy read.

The board noted CPS is required by state and federal laws to provide busing for children without permanent housing; kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who are enrolled in magnet or selective enrollment schools; and students whose special education plans call for transportation.

And if all those kids don’t get buses by the end of February, routes must be reassigned by March 7, first prioritizing special education students and kids without permanent housing who don’t accept the alternative financial assistance. Then, depending on availability, the families who accepted money will be offered busing instead of cash, followed by economically disadvantaged students at magnet or selective enrollment schools.

The board also called for CPS to review its policies for next year ahead of the February board meeting, and give monthly updates through the end of this school year on compensation for special education students who were legally entitled to transportation but didn’t receive any.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who sponsored the resolution, said she understands concerns that general education students’ bus routes may be disrupted this far into the school year, but stressed “disruption is already occurring every day for [special education] students who have no transportation right now,” and she didn’t want to “invert our priorities in terms of whose disruption we’re accommodating and whose we’re not.”

Luisiana Melendez, another board member, said voting in favor of the new policy wasn’t an easy decision but an ethical one.

“We have a legal and moral responsibility as the board to serve those who are most vulnerable,” Melendez said. “I wish it will not come to this, to having to make a choice between general ed students and students [in special education]. ... But with a heavy heart, I fully support the resolution.”

CPS officials didn’t strongly lobby against the resolution, but they preferred to continue working to find other solutions before taking away routes for general education students.

As things stand, it would take up to six weeks to develop new bus routes for the whole school system if this change happens in March, said Kimberly Jones, CPS’ transportation director. CPS has 870 drivers on 650 yellow school buses, 156 PACE vans and 64 taxis taking kids to and from school, but only 58 of those bus routes exclusively carry general education students and would be the ones canceled to accommodate children in special ed.

The hope is that as more solutions are found in the meantime, rerouting would take less time since fewer students would need new buses. Jones said she’s “pretty confident” the district can find fixes by the end of February for all the special education students still without routes and not have to cancel busing for general ed kids.

During the discussion, Todd-Breland said a similar though less detailed resolution to stop transportation for selective enrollment and magnet students in favor of special education students was set to be on the board’s September agenda but was vetoed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.

“The City Hall rationale at the time was that they wanted more time to socialize another round of changes with parents rather than finding out the next Monday on a board agenda, which I can understand that in theory,” she said. “But since that time in September, this option ... to meet our legal and ethical obligations wasn’t brought before the board again.

“We’ve continued to put off this difficult decision. ... No one’s taking this lightly or cavalierly or thinking that a family suddenly not” having transportation is OK, but the board needs to “commit to actions to do right by our most vulnerable students.”

Lightfoot spokeswoman Kate LeFurgy denied that the mayor’s office intervened. She said interim CPS CEO José Torres “at that time had shared possible solutions for busing students, however the mayor’s office was never presented with a formal resolution.”

“Mayor Lightfoot has said repeatedly that providing transportation for all CPS students is an urgent priority,” LeFurgy said.

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