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Milwaukee Public Schools promised transportation stipends due to unreliable busing. Few parents received them.

Source: Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee Public Schools promised transportation stipends due to unreliable busing. Few parents received them.

The district did not distribute $500,000 it allocated to reimburse parents for gas, bus passes and mileage. Parents say buses still run late.

November 10, 2023 8:29 AM CDT

By: Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch

Click here to read highlights from the story
  • Milwaukee Public Schools did not distribute $500,000 in federal funding it allocated in 2021 to reimburse parents for gas, bus passes and mileage during days when bus service proved unreliable.
  • The district mailed reimbursement contracts to a small subset of households that faced the most severe busing problems. It halted that program at the end of December 2021 after disbursing just over $8,200 to 124 households.
  • Milwaukee Public Schools says it has largely addressed a bus driver shortage that was the worst in 2021, but parents say unreliable buses still require families to find alternative transportation to schools.

Belinda Rodriguez depends on Milwaukee Public Schools busing contractors to transport her grandchildren to and from school. That poses problems. The bus sometimes arrives late to drive her 6-year-old granddaughter, Magaly Coronado, to her South Side Milwaukee school, or deliver her home.

That tardiness leaves Rodriguez anxious about the child’s whereabouts and wondering why one grandchild gets picked up and not the other, even though they ride the same route and live less than two miles apart.

“This is not good because sometimes we don’t have gas money or a car to take her to school,” Rodriguez texted to Wisconsin Watch in February — part of a series of messages documenting spotty bus service to her household. 

Coronado’s bus driver has been late again this school year, including during a day Wisconsin Watch visited her bus stop in October. 

Belinda Rodriguez and her 6-year-old granddaughter Magaly pose on steps in front of Rodriguez’s house.
Belinda Rodriguez and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Magaly Coronado, pose in front of Rodriguez’s house in Milwaukee on Aug. 17, 2023. Rodriguez relies on Milwaukee Public Schools-contracted buses to take her grandchildren to school, but sometimes the buses run late, causing her to seek alternative transportation. (Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

School districts across Wisconsin and nationwide have faced a years-long bus driver shortage, which the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. Bus delays and cancellations during the return to in-person learning in 2021 left many students late daily and even prompted families to consider switching schools.

Responding to the problem, the district eliminated hundreds of routes, added to drivers’ workloads and launched efforts to compensate families for the hassle of finding alternative transportation.

This included mailing reimbursement contracts to a small subset of households that faced the most severe busing problems. The school board separately allocated $500,000 in federal pandemic relief — tapping the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) — to compensate parents for transportation costs.

But school district officials left families largely in the dark about how to collect compensation, Wisconsin Watch found. Budget documents show the district did not spend the $500,000 it allocated, and officials say the district halted the parent contract program at the end of December 2021 after disbursing just over $8,200 to 124 households in a district that serves about 67,500 students.

The district says it fixed its driver shortage, eliminating the need for compensation. Parents disagree and said they could still use compensation for transportation inconveniences.

Busing reliability has improved over the past two years, parents told Wisconsin Watch through its News414 collaboration with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. But drivers sometimes still show up late. Parents on those days must drive their children to school or keep them home due to a lack of transportation. 

“When I think about myself and in getting my daughter to school, a lot of times we don’t rely on the bus because she was always getting to school late,” said Milwaukee Public Schools parent Sharlen Moore, adding that being reimbursed monthly for gas would be helpful. 

Driver shortage leaves students waiting

Shiela Cusack of Milwaukee’s South Side remembers many days during the 2021-22 school year when drivers for Wisconsin Central School Bus, one district contractor, failed to pick up her daughter and take her across town to Milwaukee High School of the Arts.

During one of her multiple calls to the company, she was encouraged to apply for a bus driver position. She wasn’t interested.

A yellow school bus with its lights on drives on a street in autumn.
A school bus from Wisconsin Central School Bus, which contracts with Milwaukee Public Schools, approaches a bus stop in Milwaukee on Oct. 26, 2023. (Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

Milwaukee Public Schools saw driver shortages that school year ranging from 30 to 70 drivers due to COVID-19 sickness or those who quit due to pandemic concerns, according to David Solik-Fifarek, senior director of business and transportation services. He described the disruption as brief.

“There were just some days where students were not getting picked up. Three days later, they were getting picked up again,” Solik-Fifarek said.

Buses failed to pick up at least 700 students on time or at all for the first day back for 40 of the district’s roughly 150 schools following the pandemic shutdown, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in October 2021.

The crisis prompted district officials to cut 600 routes, remove about 200 buses from service, increase driver routes from two to three and recruit more drivers. 

Few compensation contracts returned

But those strategies didn’t immediately solve the problem as the district waited for new drivers to complete training.

The district sought to compensate the most affected families by mailing reimbursement contracts to about 1,000 households monthly between November and December 2021 where buses didn’t show up for multiple days in a row, Solik-Fifarek said.

School board directors Megan O’Halloran and Sequanna Taylor (who is now a county supervisor) additionally saw opportunity in the district’s $506 million final round of ESSER funding. The board unanimously approved their proposal to allocate $500,000 of the pandemic aid to reimburse families for bus passes, gas and mileage. 

“Perhaps this a redundant amendment, and we already have plans,” O’Halloran said during an October 2021 budget meeting.

Local media reported on the compensation vote, but the school district did not tell parents how to access the funds.

“I don’t think we did a great job with informing parents about that benefit,” said Aisha Carr, another school board director.

A sign next to a street says
Lakeside Buses of Wisconsin, which contracts with Milwaukee Public Schools, advertises open positions in Milwaukee on Aug. 18, 2023. School districts nationwide have faced a shortage of bus drivers for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. (Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

By the time the district mailed out the contracts, 124 of which were returned, 95% of bus routes were running on any given day, Solik-Fifarek said. The majority of contracts went unreturned for a variety of likely reasons, he added, including that the family had switched addresses, switched schools, didn’t get their mail or decided they didn’t need the small stipend.

The district had enough drivers in the pipeline by mid-December to further stabilize the busing system, allowing officials to end the compensation program, according to Solik-Fifarek. 

“That was a very short-lived program,” he said. 

The district did not spend the additional $500,000 it allocated for transportation stipends, according to a May 2023 document submitted to the school board directors. The document, an update on ESSER spending, proposed removing the stipend allocation in a budget revision. 

“I think that’s extremely unfair,” Cusack said. 

District officials did not answer Wisconsin Watch’s questions about whether the funds were reallocated for another purpose. 

Wisconsin Watch asked school board president Marva Herndon and board member Henry Leonard about how the district spent the money. Herndon told a reporter to submit a public records request, and Leonard said he didn’t know where the money would have gone. Wisconsin Watch is waiting on the district to fulfill that request.

Bus route changes are a challenge

Some residents say the requirement that drivers work a third route has kept the system moving slowly. 

“If (drivers) get a hiccup on their first or second route, it’s going to impact everything else that comes after it,” Moore said.

Heather Peña, whose sixth and seventh grade daughters rely on the bus, said late buses were a particular problem during colder temperatures. 

In February Peña lacked a car, causing the children to miss school one day when the bus was late.

“I wasn’t going to have them waiting outside for a half an hour for a bus that was going to show up late and have them freeze their butts off,” she said. 

Cusack’s daughter was often late to her first class due to unreliable bus service in February, the mother said.

“There’s still days where I have to take my daughter to school. She doesn’t even know if the bus is coming,” Cusack told Wisconsin Watch.

Yellow school buses parked in a row
Buses driven by Lakeside Buses of Wisconsin, which contracts with Milwaukee Public Schools, are seen in Milwaukee on Aug. 18, 2023. School bus reliability has improved over the past two years, parents say, but drivers still sometimes show up late, creating challenges for families. (Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

Adding an additional route to drivers’ schedules and offering them longer hours largely works, but it can create a time crunch, Solik-Fifarek acknowledged. He added any change to previous routines can create challenges.

“You set these routes up and then all of a sudden you add another kid, another kid, and another kid and before you know it, the route is running 20 minutes longer than it was a month ago,” he said. “And then it requires some fixing.” 

Some drivers remain frustrated that the extra demands make staying on time more difficult, particularly when bad traffic or weather strikes, said Farina Brooks, a longtime bus driver and community leader. 

Brooks’ first daily route starts on Milwaukee’s West Side. She then serves the Far Northwest Side. Her third route covers the East Side, she said. 

In the early months of the busing overhaul Brooks would show parents her far-reaching duties on a map to assure them she wasn’t late on purpose. 

“We have a heart. Most of us have children, and we understand that these babies have to stand out here. It’s not like we want them to, but there’s only so much we can do,” Brooks said. “We have to run the route the way it is and the way the times are set up. It’s frustrating to us because there’s nothing we can do.”

Information for parents

Milwaukee Public Schools contracts with a variety of busing companies to serve students. Those needing to report a busing issue can find phone numbers for each of those companies at this website. Parents can separately contact the district’s transportation office by calling 414-475-8922 or emailing tran@milwaukee.k12.wi.us.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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