Dayton Public Schools is trying to turn the tide on academic performance, but the district faces a huge stumbling block outside the classroom — its troubled busing system can’t always get students to school.
Jo Wilson, interim chief operating officer for DPS, said the district needs a minimum of 173 drivers to transport all bus-eligible students on a given day. Last week, the district was 29 drivers short, excluding subs. The problem is not new, but it has led to repeated complaints from parents about late or missing buses this fall.
“This is unacceptable; please know that,” school board president Adil Baguirov told a frustrated parent at a board meeting this month. “We will deal with that. … This will be done very, very soon. What others have failed to do for so many years will finally be resolved this year. I promise you that.”
But conversations with parents show there’s a long way to go.
Monique Dewberry’s son, Ja’Ron, rides a bus across town from Germantown Street to Wright Brothers Middle School on Huffman Avenue. Dewberry said after years of not liking school, Ja’Ron loves his first year at Wright Brothers.
But on three days in September, Dewberry said no bus came to take him there. Dewberry said she’s lucky that she has a car, and she’s determined not to let Ja’Ron miss school now that things are going well.
“It’s a strain because he’s supposed to be picked up at 6:50 a.m., and they say to allow 10 minutes after, so that’s 7 o’clock,” she said. “I’m not going to wait longer because by the time I drive across town to his school, then get back downtown for work, park and walk to my job, I’ll be late.”
Dewberry said she’s already missed the 7:45 a.m. clock-in time for her city of Dayton job twice. And she said she was told this week that her son’s regular bus driver will be out for close to two months.
“They told me to call the transportation department between 6 and 6:15 each morning just to see if they had a bus (for his route),” Dewberry said. “Tuesday when I called, there were 30 callers ahead of me. (Wednesday), they said yes, we have a driver today. But that’s something you have to check every day.”
Schools, parents adjust
Elaine Barrow said DPS Bus 81 is supposed to take her children to the Emerson Academy charter school, but there’s currently no driver for that route. Barrow said Bus 30 or 31 often takes its place, but sometimes it drives right past the kids.
“Ever since school started, or the second week of school, we have had problems,” Barrow told the school board. “I’ve called down to transportation, but nobody has returned my call. … It’s getting worse by the day.”
Baguirov took the rare step of publicly calling out a transportation supervisor at the Sept. 20 board meeting, saying he has “heard way too much by now, from many different people, so it’s time for real serious action.”
State law requires school districts to transport K-8 students who live in the district and live at least two miles from their public, charter or private school. Dayton chooses to bus students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school — a total of more than 11,000 students per day — 6,827 to DPS schools, and 4,300 to charter, Catholic and other schools.
There are hundreds of other parochial school families that get a $250 payment “in lieu of transportation.”
Asked how many students were missed by DPS buses for specific days, Wilson said she could not provide an exact number. She said when there is no regular or substitute driver for a route, “the students are transported by other (nearby) drivers before, after and during their assigned route,” meaning buses may be late.
“We cannot track those numbers because they’re the result of individual and school call-ins to transportation dispatch,” she said.
Impact on poor
Dewberry and her mother make sure Ja’Ron gets to and from school if the bus is late or missing, but she’s worried about the impact on the city’s poorest families.
“There are plenty of other parents who don’t have cars,” she said. “Their kids are probably sitting at home (falling behind). That’s not fair.”
The National Center for Education Statistics highlighted a study showing that high absenteeism for kids as young as kindergarten age was associated with lower achievement in reading, math, and general knowledge in later years.
The impact of missed buses may be more pronounced in Dayton than it would be in some other districts. In addition to fewer people with transportation, DPS gives families more freedom to choose their school than many districts, meaning more students attend school miles from home. That can make walking impractical.
“It affects our busing horribly, but we do it,” Wilson said.
Trying to improve
The school district is not fiddling while Rome burns. This summer, Michael Rosenberger replaced James Wallace, who had spent four years as transportation director. Wilson said Rosenberger, formerly with Lakota, Reynoldsburg and Adena schools, has expertise with DPS’ routing software.
The district held a dry run Aug. 15, with buses running their normal routes at normal times. Families were invited to come to the bus stop to meet their drivers.
The district is launching a Here Comes the Bus app, allowing families to do real-time GPS tracking of their student’s bus. That app comes with a big caveat, though — if there’s no driver on a route, families may not be able to see what replacement bus, if any, is coming to their stop.
Wilson said things should get a little better in the coming weeks, because six subs just passed the civil service test and will become permanent drivers this week. She said 25 trainees currently are taking classes, with those who pass expected to be able to drive in three-to-four weeks.
Rhonda Corr, DPS’ new superintendent, repeatedly has said fixing the busing problem is a high priority, calling missing buses and long call wait times “unacceptable.”
Jim Tackett, the field representative for the drivers’ union, said he’s optimistic about progress.
“We’ve been working well so far with the new superintendent, and we’ve met with some school board members about these issues,” Tackett said. “We’re working on ways we can both improve.”
Bus driver shortage
Dayton Public Schools may have the most pronounced bus driver shortage in the area, but it’s not alone in beating the bushes for more drivers. The Dayton Area School Employment Consortium, where schools post job ads, had more than 20 districts looking for substitute drivers last week.
Tim Barrett, assistant superintendent of the county Educational Service Center, said the market for attracting bus drivers is tough all over Ohio.
“The last couple years it has gotten much tougher to get drivers or substitutes,” Barrett said. “I think the No. 1 reason is definitely the economy picking up … that there’s a shortage of people out there to work.”
Pete Japikse, a deputy director and transportation expert for the Ohio School Boards Association, said it’s hard to recruit drivers for what is mainly a nine-month, split-shift, part-time job — often without benefits — especially when you consider other driving jobs like UPS or FedEx.
“This is a pretty tough job. The stakes are higher, the responsibility’s higher … and UPS’ boxes don’t talk back,” Japikse said.
Some drivers have addressed that last issue on DPS’ Facebook page. Jerome Anderson, who identified himself as the driver of Route D-315, said he loves the job and the children, but called some kids “out of control.”
“Children throw objects at other children and at the drivers and they think that it is funny,” Anderson wrote. “They throw things out the windows at other cars and think that it is funny. They smoke on the bus, they set fire to the seats. They cuss at each other and at the drivers.”
On top of that, DPS pays less than many surrounding districts. A new regular bus driver for DPS makes $13.85 per hour, with a six-hour per day guarantee. Not all districts have that guarantee, but new drivers make $15.74 in West Carrollton and $18.54 in Mad River.
Huber Heights Superintendent Sue Gunnell said her district pays $18.82 to start, and has longevity pay for longtime drivers. All of its routes are covered, but the district is still advertising for subs.
Corr said she is bringing in a veteran school transportation official to analyze Dayton’s busing system from the outside. Wilson suggested options are limited.
“Nobody wants to fix this more than we do,” Wilson said. “There’s only two ways to fix it, and that’s either reduce the routes or add drivers. But (reducing routes) to a 2-mile perimeter would be a hardship on our families. We’re trying to look at this from all sides.”
DPS school busing
Drivers needed: 173
Drivers in place: 144 plus subs
Students driven daily: 11,127
Schools served: 28 DPS schools plus 36 charter/Catholic/other
Source: Dayton Public Schools