LOUISVILLE, Ky. – An overly-ambitious redesign of bus routes for Louisville's school district turned into a logistical meltdown on the first day of classes, forcing schools to close as administrators said Friday that students might stay home for part of next week until the mess is untangled.
Parents were fuming and some state politicians pressed for changes in the sprawling urban district after some of the 96,000 students didn't get picked up on Wednesday for school in the morning or came home hours late — with some arriving after dark.
“They had all summer to get this figured out and they couldn’t figure it out,” said Berkley Collins, a mother of two students in Jefferson County Public Schools.
Another appalled parent, Beau Kilpatrick, said one of his young daughters was covered in urine when she finally arrived home at 9:15 p.m. He called it a "complete failure” by the district.
“They were hungry,” he said of his two elementary-age kids. “They were thirsty. They couldn’t use the bathroom. They were scared because they just wanted to get home.”
On a day that started with so much excitement for the start of a new school year, his children arrived home heartbroken, Kilpatrick said. He was heartbroken, too.
After just one disastrous day, Kentucky's largest district is reexamining the bus routing system designed by AlphaRoute, a Massachusetts-based consulting company that uses computer algorithms to map out courses and stops.
It could take until the middle of next week to resolve the problems enough to resume classes, Superintendent Marty Pollio said Friday, promising to give parents plenty of notice before Monday.
“I said it from the very beginning, I take responsibility for it myself,” Pollio said at a news conference, repeating his earlier apology to families, bus drivers and school staff.
He said the district should have anticipated that the new plan didn’t leave enough time for busses to get from stop to stop, especially on the first day of school when delays are bound to happen.
The overhaul was intended to solve a basic math problem for the district: Last school year, it didn’t have enough drivers to cover all the routes. As a result, thousands of kids missed considerable amounts of instructional time as some drivers made double and triple runs.
The redesigned plan shrunk the number of bus routes in response to that driver shortage.
Pollio said the district will have to stick with the new plan, which he admitted “isn't perfect.”
“But it’s going to be much more efficient, and our communication will be much better with families and schools,” he said. “We want to make sure we get that right before we put the kids back on a school bus again.”
The district has 65,000 bus riders, according to its website.
In assessing fault for the opening day fiasco, the superintendent said he's “not going to put it on the company,” referring to AlphaRoute, adding that it was more a problem with implementation.
Pollio also emphasized that he wasn't blaming bus drivers, and district officials have acknowledged the system faced a "big learning curve” in carrying out the new plan. Leading up to the start of the school year, bus drivers had several days to practice their routes, and they continued making practice runs Thursday and Friday.
AlphaRoute said in a statement that the “full range of root causes” for the problems weren't yet clear.
“We recognize that the situation was extremely regrettable and likely caused by the significant changes to bus routing,” the company said. “Combined with their new school assignment model, this is a substantial amount of change.”
Tiesha Calbert experienced the problems both as a parent and as the director of a child care center.
She says the district moved a school bus stop that was right in front of the center. Now there are multiple stops between 1 block and 2 1/2 blocks away. A special needs child waited over 3 hours for a bus that never came, she said.
Calbert said she's required by the state to sign the kids out, but she doesn’t have enough people to follow them to their bus stops and wait with them.
“I have to figure out what we’re going to do,” she said. “I’m not going to let these kids go back out and just be wandering around for hours.”
A group of state lawmakers representing Jefferson County districts called Wednesday's chaos “the last straw,” saying the debacle “must be the catalyst for change” in the school system.
The lawmakers signaled they will push for legislation ensuring that students have the right to attend their neighborhood schools. They called for a commission to evaluate splitting up the school system, contending that the district currently is “too big to properly manage.” They also called for changes to the local school board.
Many other districts across the country are experiencing similar bus driver shortages.
A survey of school system leaders taken between October and December 2022 found staffing shortages were not as severe compared to the fall of 2021, but many reported trouble finding enough substitute teachers, special education teachers and bus drivers. In the American School District Panel Survey, 45% of district leaders reported a “considerable shortage” of bus drivers.
Columbus City Schools in Ohio experienced its own upheaval in 2022 that led to mid-school year changes in its transportation plan, which it blamed on its own driver shortage as well as issues with a new software system. The district had a contract with AlphaRoute for software, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
Loller reported from Nashville, Tennessee.