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Chicago Public Schools prepares for transportation issues before school year

School buses and an American flag are at the front of North-Grand High School in Chicago, with school buses lined up in front of the campus.

On Wednesday, the Chicago school board passed measures to prioritize rides for students with the most need and expand the number of bus companies contracted by the school district.

Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools is trying to get ahead of transportation issues before school starts next month by expanding the number of bus companies contracted by the district and prioritizing rides for students who need them most. 

The moves come after a bus shortage left thousands of students without rides for the first half of the last school year.

At Wednesday’s school board meeting, CEO Pedro Martinez said the district is still working to hire enough bus drivers, but insisted it will be able to transport all students who have already requested transportation when school starts. 

But among the measures the school board approved Wednesday is a policy that prioritizes students in the event of a bus shortage and codifies an emergency policy put in place in January.  Under the resolution, students with disabilities and those in temporary living situations will get rides before general education students who qualify for busing to get to magnet and other selective schools. 

The district enrolls more than 300,000 students, but only provides transportation for around 12,000 annually. Martinez said CPS expects to serve more than 15,000 families in the coming year and is working with the Chicago Transit Authority to provide passes for students.

The district is also offering some families alternatives to busing. Students with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans, as well as those in temporary living situations, can get $500 monthly stipends to pay for gas or other private rides, such as taxis and rideshare. Stipends were first used last fall, and at the time, Martinez said he would consider using more alternative modes of transportation in the future.

But parents and Chicago Teachers Union advocates have criticized CPS for offering the stipends, arguing that the amount – equal to about $25 a day – isn’t enough. The district is legally mandated to provide appropriate transportation to students with disabilities. 

Alice Costas, a teacher at Northside Prep High School, said families are being “pressured” to accept the “absolutely inadequate” payments. Students with disabilities at her school often require adult accompaniment and specialized equipment, which cannot be provided in a Lyft, she said.

Costas said the stipends last year failed to get many students to school. When they did get busing, Costas said, it was inconsistent. Drivers were “shuffled in and out” and scrambled to learn students’ critical needs on the spot, she said.

“Imagine your child sitting at the end of the day for two hours in a coat and they can’t unzip themselves, they can’t adjust their tracheostomy tubes, they can’t really express their needs, and there’s a single adult scrambling to provide for them and all their needs,” Costas said.

Miriam Bhimani, a parent advocate who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said that she is concerned how the district will meet its obligation to provide transportation for students with disabilities. The district’s offer of a monthly stipend or an unreasonably long bus ride is an “improper choice,” she said.

She cited the corrective action plan to provide transportation for students with disabilities that was sent to the Illinois State Board of Education after a formal complaint was filed in September. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, Martinez could not provide information on how many families have chosen to use the stipends, but said many signing up for them for the coming year also used them last year. Many families don’t want their children to sit on long bus routes, he said.

Martinez said the district is working to avoid bus shortages by expanding the number of vendors it works with and increasing the hourly rate for drivers. 

“I know that suburbs are offering a minimum $20 per hour,” Martinez said. “Some of our partners, their rates were as low as $15.65. And so we are changing that to $20 an hour because again, I don’t want to be losing because our rates are so much lower.”

Martinez said district officials are currently “in conversation” with transportation providers to increase drivers’ hourly rates. 

Last year, the annual report from the CPS Office of Inspector General revealed that the district had spent millions in good-faith payments to bus companies as they continued with layoffs, contributing to the ongoing transportation shortages.

Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at epomeroy@chalkbeat.org.

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