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Plan to pay parents to drive kids to school in Buffalo wins key approval

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Buffalo Public Schools' transportation issues remain in the spotlight, as a school board member has criticized the district's private transportation provider ahead of Wednesday's board meeting.

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Parents who drive their children to school in Buffalo might begin reaping a financial benefit.

The Buffalo Board of Education on Wednesday night approved a key step in the Parent Transportation Reimbursement Pilot Program that would allow 1,500 parents to be paid for the mileage required to drive their children to school. The move is one strategy in an attempt to overcome a nationwide bus shortage being felt locally.

Buffalo would be the first large school district in the state to attempt reimbursing parents.

At the monthly board meeting at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, the board approved spending $856,332 to finance an initiative presented by Office of Family and Parent Engagement Director Ramona Reynolds, who also served on the district's Operation Sunrise Transportation Committee this summer.

While about 90% of the district's annual transportation funding is reimbursed by the state, it is uncertain if the state will subsidize all or part of this new program, Board President Louis Petrucci said.

The pilot program – in which participating parents would opt out of yellow busing – would be orchestrated by 22nd Century Technologies, a national IT and management company that already works with BPS. A Buffalo Public Schools employee would likely be required to monitor the program regularly to ensure accountability of parents and their children's school attendance, Reynolds said.

Participating parents have not been selected yet, and Reynolds said her team is still gathering information regarding program specifics before opening enrollment. Her proposal said parents would be paid 62.5 cents per mile, with an average round trip of 6 miles. The overall goal would be to eliminate bus routes or consolidate existing yellow bus routes as a result of significantly fewer students relying on school-provided transportation.

All but one School Board member approved the motion, with an overwhelming sentiment that an outside-the-box solution must be attempted with some urgency.

"To not address the problem is unacceptable. Not to try new things is not acceptable. And to allow children to stand out in the cold for their buses not to appear is not acceptable," said Sharon Belton-Cottman, the Ferry District representative, who was echoed by Paulette Woods and Kathy Evans-Brown in a lively 40-minute discussion. Belton-Cottman painted a bleak picture of transportation woes last year, estimating that 3,000 kids were not picked up on a given day, with some students getting to school as late as 10:30 a.m. and others arriving at home at 7 or 8 p.m.

"We have to start somewhere," Evans-Brown said.

Jennifer Mecozzi, Terrance Heard and Louis Petrucci initially sought more information from Reynolds, with Heard suggesting a presentation describing the program at a committee meeting next month. But the trio said a vote Wednesday was crucial since preliminary plans are to launch the pilot program Nov. 14. Mecozzi expressed concern the approach would not be equitable, as students who did not have a parent with a vehicle would still be left waiting in the cold for the bus.

Ultimately, only one board member did not approve the motion.

"We need to think outside the box to rectify this, but I cannot stomach just throwing money at something that is not proven and is costly," said Larry Scott, an at-large board member who shared on social media earlier in the day his opposition to the agenda item.

On Twitter, Scott criticized the district's longtime private transportation partner for falling short in its commitment amid a nationwide bus shortage. According to the Buffalo Schools' budget, the district will pay its private transportation partner $41.7 million for this school year after paying $49.3 million in 2021.

"We have agreed to driver raises and sign on bonuses and cut well over a hundred routes, as remedies," Scott wrote. "I know that this is a national crisis, but, perhaps First Student, a large national company, should share SOME of this responsibility for not fulfilling their commitment to this costly contract."

Rob Galbraith, a Buffalo Public School parent, quote tweeted Scott with a screenshot of First Student's public financial report. First Student in North America, part of international transportation business FirstGroup, profited $123 million in the year prior to March 2022 on an 18% profit margin. Scott said at Wednesday's meeting that $9 million of First Student's profit came directly from the BPS contract.

Rob Hummel, the Buffalo representative for First Student, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. During an August news conference with district officials regarding the transportation crisis, Hummel touted the pay increase, with drivers starting between $25 and $28 per hour, as well as signing and retention bonuses as ways the international transportation provider was working to overcome the nationwide shortage felt locally, with as many as 100 bus drivers needed at the time. Superintendent Tonja Williams said Wednesday the district was short about 20 to 30 bus drivers.

He added that several prospective bus drivers were trying to navigate the process to earn a commercial drivers license (CDL) required to drive a bus. The district operated more than 700 bus routes before the pandemic, but started this year with just over 400, officials said.

The strategy to reimburse parents the federal mileage rate for a predetermined route was one of several solutions considered by the Operation Sunrise, a group of administrators, stakeholders and community leaders who brainstormed ways over the summer to overcome the nationwide shortage of bus drivers. 

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at btsujimoto@buffnews.com, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.

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