LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Overcrowding on Jefferson County Public Schools buses has Roslena McGruder fearing for her son’s safety as the freshman travels to and from Eastern High School each day.
McGruder and other JCPS parents say JCPS buses have been packed during the opening days of the 2021-22 school year, at times leaving students no choice but to stand in aisles if they can’t find seats.
“Not just that he’s standing up in the middle, but what if a car accident happens, and the bus gets hit, or they hit someone?” McGruder said Wednesday. “Them children, they have nothing to hold onto so they're going to go flying some type of way.”
“They’ve got a major lawsuit on their hands if the bus gets into an accident and you’ve got multiple children standing because there’s nowhere to sit,” Ryan Yankey, whose son is a sophomore at Male High School, said in an interview last week.
JCPS is working through another school year affected by COVID-19, opening classrooms and buses to full capacities for the first time since the 2019-20 school year abruptly ended months early at the onset of the pandemic.
Kentucky’s largest school district has all its 771 bus routes covered but is still looking for more drivers. John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, said the district is short at least 100 drivers and confirmed that drivers on staff are dealing with crowded buses and students standing in aisles.
JCPS Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said the district is taking steps to address overcrowding on district buses, which can carry 66 passengers. Students, at times, sit three to a seat.
“As those are being brought to our attention either from drivers, from schools, from parents, we’re addressing each one of those specifically,” Perkins said. “We want to make sure, one, that students understand they need to be seated and, two, that drivers reiterate those points to students and that we want to transport students safely.”
Superintendent Marty Pollio told the Jefferson County Board of Education on Tuesday that the district’s transportation team is "doing everything they possibly can" to alleviate overcrowding on buses and that JCPS is "at a critical juncture" with transportation.
“We're looking for very targeted solutions to very specific problems,” Perkins told WDRB News. “... We will continue analyzing our numbers, our routes, trends, concerns being brought to our attention. We’re actively looking to recruit and retain more drivers, but we’re also trying to get creative with the resources we have available.”
JCPS is not alone in trying to fill bus driver vacancies, Pollio said, noting that the district pays about $28 per hour for bus drivers.
“This is something that’s happening across everywhere that needs a (commercial driver’s license) just because it's so competitive right now,” he said. “We are going to work hard this year so that we don’t drop any routes. But as far as the larger picture of transportation, we are going to have to make some changes.”
Some possible changes floated by Pollio during Tuesday’s meeting include adding activity drivers and buses for schools in the short-term and altering school starting times in the long-term.
Without revising school start times, Pollio said JCPS faces “some difficult decisions about who gets transported and who does not get transported” in the future.
“We’re going have to make some tough decisions long-term, but what I can tell you is that team is doing everything they can to reduce the amount of kids on those buses,” he said.
“A lot of large, urban school districts have done that just to spread out the number of students from a transportation perspective, the number of students being transported at any one time,” Perkins told WDRB News on Wednesday.
Parents like McGruder and Yankey hope to see less crowding on JCPS buses sooner rather than later. Yankey said his son got off at a bus stop last week a few miles from home and called family requesting an Uber home. His sister ultimately picked him up, Yankey said.
“I’m furious with the busing system,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
McGruder said her son and others on his school bus who didn’t have seats Tuesday were given TARC tickets for rides home.
“They told him to walk to Walmart from Eastern High School and just go catch a bus, and to me, that’s even worse, because you’ve got my child all the way across town, don't know where he is, don't know how to get home," she said. "And, of course, you know me and his father had to figure it out to go get them. ... I just need them to step up and do what they need to do to make sure that my child is safe.”
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