CINCINNATI — Katie Freshley’s 7-year-old daughter started this school year “super excited” by the idea of taking the bus to Fairview-Clifton German Language School.

The second-grader, whose name Freshley asked not Spectrum News not to include in this story, looked forward to riding to and from the public school on Clifton Avenue surrounded by her friends. She’d never been on a school bus before.

“She thought it sounded like it would be fun,” said Freshley, adding that having her take the bus also was a big help at home. Freshley, who also has a 13-month-old, works full time during the day.

However, that excitement didn’t last beyond the first few days of school, Freshley said. Her daughter told her it always “felt like an oven” on the bus, but the biggest gripe was that she never knew when it’d get there each day.

What You Need To Know

  • Cincinnati Public Schools buses are arriving on time 80% of the time, according to the district

  • National driver shortages and bus availability caused CPS to use a "stacked route" system for its yellow buses

  • The district is working to develop a plan to improve busing for next year

  • CPS plans to hold town halls this winter on the district's bus plan

“More and more often the bus would either show up way too early, or way too late,” Freshley said. “Several times it was so late I had to drive her to school to make sure she got there on time.”

A few weeks into the school year, Freshley said “enough was enough.”

“I decided to just drive my daughter to school and back, even though it’s hard for me,” she added. “I just don’t feel like I trusted (the busing situation) enough.”

Freshley’s story isn’t unique.

Only about 80% of Cincinnati Public School students who take the bus to school arrive on time to school every day, according to CPS Superintendent Iranetta Wright. And that’s a drastic improvement from the success rate the district had to start the school year.

Wright told reporters during a recent transportation “roundtable” on that on-time arrival in August was closer to 35%.

The goal for large urban districts is between 95% and 98%, Wright said.

“This is obviously not where we want to be,” she added.

Where we are

Joining Wright at the CPS Education Center in Corryville were representatives of the three yellow bus vendors CPS is using this school year — First Student, Petermann and UTS. Freshley said her daughter took a bus owned by UTS.

The district also gives Metro passes to high school students and some seventh- and eighth-graders.

There are about 8,500 daily CPS student trips on Metro buses every day, said John Ravasio, chief operations officer for the transit agency. He said performance has exceeded the district’s overall on-time numbers with 88% within 10 minutes of the first bell. About 97% arrive within five minutes of the first bell, he added.

Lou Doench has three teenagers who take a Metro bus to the School of the Creative and Performing Arts, or SCPA.

A student gets on board a Metro bus. Some CPS students get vouchers to use the public bus system. (Photo courtesy of Metro)
A student gets on board a Metro bus. Some CPS students get vouchers to use the public bus system. (Photo courtesy of Metro)

“Easy peasy,” he said of the busing situation.

It’s similar for Emily St. Clair’s daughter, Elsa, an eighth-grade student at the downtown Cincinnati school. She takes the Metro to school instead of  a yellow bus, her mother said. The option to take a yellow bus is new this year for seventh- and eighth-graders.

“(Elsa) took the Metro last year, and it worked great for us, so we kept doing that,” St. Clair said.

The biggest issues right now are with the yellow bus vendors, which are operating stacked routes this year.

A stacked route is when one bus services two routes that would normally be handled by two buses. In those instances, the bus will run and complete the first route before starting the second.

CPS used that approach as part of their bus optimization plan from last year, Wright said.

“So essentially, you’re going to have a group that’s going to be late getting to school and a group that’s going to be late being picked up from school,” she added. “Currently, we don’t have other options.”

Most schools in the district have seen delays this year, but students at six of them have been “most severely affected,” Wright said. Those schools are:

  • Western Hills University High School

  • Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School

  • Gilbert A. Dater High School

  • Shroder High School

  • James N. Gamble Montessori High School

  • SCPA

Each of those schools has students in grades seventh through 12th. SCPA also has elementary school students.

When students arrive late to school because of bus issues, by state law the district has to mark them as tardy, Wright said. But CPS officials stated those students aren’t punished for tardiness caused by busing issues. 

It doesn’t appear the busing issue is having a negative impact on student performance, Wright said. “But we can’t get back that actual time they lost.”

How we got here

While she knew she was inheriting issues with busing and transportation when she started the job on May 2, Wright said didn’t realize just how challenging the situation would be until around mid-July.

CPS has unique transportation planning considerations. The district offers bus service to all students who live more than 1 mile from their school. Besides its own 36,000 students, CPS must provide transportation services to charter, parochial and private schools as well. 

Freshley lives in College Hill, which is about a 15-minute car ride from her daughter’s school.

But the biggest factors right now are the national shortage of bus drivers and CPS not having enough buses to fill routes. The district was short 40 buses to start the school year, Wright said. That number is now down to about 20.

“Students had been assigned to routes that didn’t yet have buses,” Wright said.

First Student is the district’s largest yellow bus provider. It currently operates 72 conventional yellow school buses, said Joe Eversole, general manager of the Cincinnati-based company. This year, First Student is running 188 routes, 13 more than contracted, Eversole said.

Supply chain issues are affecting the availability to get new buses, Eversole sadded. But even if they could get them, they may not have anyone to drive them. 

Stacy Bobzean, regional manager at Petermann, joined leaders from all four bus companies in stressing that money is available to fill open driver positions as soon as possible. She also noted promotional offerings being available to new hires, such as sign-on bonuses and paid training.

Where we’re going

In the future, CPS plans to explore the use of a “hub system” to eliminate the number of pickup locations and stops across the 91-square-mile district, Wright said. She compared it to a traditional bus stop, like those used by Metro.

There’ve also been internal discussions about CPS purchasing its own mini-fleet of buses “and adding everything that goes with it,” she said. 

If the district went that route, however, it “wouldn’t be an immediate fix,” Wright said. She feels the process would take 12 to 24 months.

Wright said they’re “out of options” for fixing the big-picture transportation problems for this school year. Instead, she said they’re going to focus on trying to address individual problems as they arise.

That includes improving communication with parents with proactive and accurate information, she added. She also said that the district needs to do a better job of following its policies.

Wright shared one instance where a number of students were incorrectly “removed from buses” because an employee didn’t follow an existing protocol.

Freshley voiced frustration over communication with the district so far this year. She still receives calls and emails weekly about changes to her daughter’s bus route “even though nothing ever changes.”

“It’s really annoying because we stopped taking the bus and I’m still getting all these updates that never show that there has been a change in the (schedule) time or anything,” she said.

Freshley doesn’t feel like she knows from whom she can get answers.

“I would like to be able to have my daughter ride the bus,” she said.

Cincinnati Public Schools plans to host town hall-style events focused on transportation in January and February, Wright said. Those events will be open to the public.

Wright said parents, guardians and students experiencing issues can email her directly.

“There’s no one easy solution and as a result of that, it’s going to take all of us working together as partners,” she added.