With an estimated shortage of about 100 school bus drivers to fulfill roughly 500 bus routes, leaders in Buffalo Public Schools are considering a new route: paying parents for driving their kids to school.
Reimbursing parents 58.5 cents per mile is one of several solutions under consideration by Buffalo to address a severe driver shortage that is impacting schools across the nation.
School districts and private contractors in New York State are reporting a 15% to 20% shortage in the driver force.
But with school starting Sept. 6, time is short to assess parents' interest, and a district committee is also exploring other possibilities that could include consolidating bus routes or adjusting school start times.
While the committee's decision hinges on the results of a parent survey, its members faced questions Friday about why the process is still in doubt a month before school begins.
"It will not be chaos," Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Tonja M. Williams told reporters Friday at City Hall. "I don't engage in chaos. We've being very intentional, very deliberate, and what we don't want to do is have a hodgepodge of things that we're trying to do at the same time and not really doing any of them well."
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The committee, which includes BPS leaders, stakeholders, district parents and community members, would not elaborate on deadlines for changes to student transportation, but Williams said all solutions might not be in place when school begins.
Under the committee's proposal, parents or guardians of Buffalo Public School children would be reimbursed 58.5 cents per mile, a federally determined rate, with the distance between their household and the child's school predetermined. Parents would not be able to drive children from outside their family.
How to overcome a school bus driver shortage is a familiar debate in districts across the country. The shortage existed before Covid-19, but the pandemic exacerbated the issue. A charter school in Delaware last year offered parents willing to drive their children to school $700 per child for the full year, while a school district in Pittsburgh delayed its start last year to address the issue.
Michael Cornell, president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association and Hamburg Schools superintendent, said these shortages – which extend beyond bus drivers to school social workers and more specialized roles – are a microcosm of the country's workforce participation rate. Labor force participation rate has dropped by more than 1% since February 2020, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cornell called paying parents to drive a "smart approach" that he has used previously in Hamburg on a small scale. But he emphasized that different-sized districts can require different solutions.
"It's going to take a mosaic of solutions to really get at the problem of 'how are we going to get all of our kids to school each day?' " Cornell said.
For Buffalo Public Schools, there are no solutions yet in place, and school begins Sept. 6.
Most pressing is learning whether parents in the district want to drive their kids to school if they were compensated for mileage. The decision hinges on the results of a survey sent to each household with a BPS student, said John Gonzalez, the district's associate superintendent of school leadership.
The six-question survey, accessible at Buffalo Public Schools' Office of Parent and Family Engagement Facebook page, is due at the end of the day Monday, officials said. Responders are asked to provide their area code, specific Buffalo Public schools involved, whether they used yellow bus transportation last year, whether they would opt out of yellow bus transportation this coming year, and whether their student requires special transportation due to a disability. There were about 2,500 responses as of Friday morning.
Tonja Williams received something akin to a hero’s welcome Thursday evening as the Buffalo School Board voted unanimously to make her the district’s permanent superintendent.
Neither Gonzalez nor Williams could say how parents would be reimbursed in terms of payment form or frequency.
Other potential solutions to be considered by Buffalo Public Schools include collapsing or consolidating bus routes, adjusting school start times and extending the hours of after-school activities, said Louis Petrucci, president of the Buffalo School Board.
Petrucci offered a hypothetical situation a Buffalo Public Schools parent that does not have a vehicle might face, an example of what the committee is trying to avoid.
"How do we serve the single mom of two kids that is forced to make that decision in the morning: 'My child missed the bus and I'm going to pay that rideshare service premium to get my child to school. Is it worth it? If it's going to take my full shift's pay to get him to school that day, I'll just let them stay home that one day because one day isn't going to impact them that much.' And we know that every day is precious when it comes to education."
Bishop Michael Badger, a community member in the committee, said that the average bus ride for a Buffalo Public School student is 55 minutes one-way. "That's way too long," he said, before advocating that the committee's solutions trim that metric.
Like past years, the district will not know for sure how many bus drivers it has until the first day of the school year, and Rob Hummel, a representative from First Student, BPS' school bus partner for four decades, said his company has amplified its recruiting by raising starting wages by almost 30%, to $25 an hour, and added bonuses up to $5,000.
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.