Columbus City Schools won't use COTA buses for high school transportation

Alissa Widman Neese
The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus Board of Education member Carol Beckerle, right, asks a question about the number of bus drivers in the district to Superintendent Talisa Dixon, left, during a board meeting Tuesday at the Columbus City Schools South Administration Building on the South Side.

Columbus City Schools officials have decided not to go forward with a proposal to use Central Ohio Transit Authority buses for high school transportation in the upcoming school year.

Instead, Ohio's largest school district purchased new software Tuesday to make its bus routes more efficient amid a shortage of bus drivers locally and across the country. The school year starts Aug. 26.

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As of Tuesday, the district has 608 active bus drivers and is "aggressively recruiting" more, with 146 candidates in training, Superintendent Talisa Dixon said Tuesday. Officials said they anticipate having enough to cover routes once the school year begins.

By comparison, in the 2019-20 school year, the district employed 765 drivers.

"We've got a ways to go," said Mike De Fabbo, the district's executive director of human resources. "We're going to get there. We're going to keep going and we're not going to stop until we have enough." 

The Columbus Board of Education voted 7-0 to buy the new routing software from Dynamic Ideas, a nearly $327,000 purchase. Dynamic Ideas is a company founded by MIT researchers who worked with Boston Public Schools to route buses with an algorithm, saving millions of dollars.

By using the software, Columbus City Schools will be able to optimize and pare down its bus routes, Dixon told board members Tuesday.

The district operated 704 in the 2019-20 school year, transporting approximately 40,000 students. About a third attend charter and nonpublic schools, but the district is required to provide transportation to them if they live within district boundaries, according to Ohio law.

Instead of operating separate bus routes for district and non-district students, as in the past, the routes will be integrated for better efficiency, Dixon said.

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In June, Columbus City Schools had first discussed using existing COTA routes for students in grades 9-12, rather than yellow buses, as a possible solution to its transportation challenges. The board had tabled that proposal June 29, however, and never revisited it.

Also that month, to attract more drivers, the district increased hourly pay for a bus driver trainee from $11 to $18.50. A regular bus driver's pay is $19.88 per hour.

The district will still provide COTA passes to high schoolers who need them in the 2021-22 school year to get to internships or jobs, a partnership that has existed for years, spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said. But a new program from earlier this year that provided all students in grades 8-12 with free passes will end on Aug. 25.

A COTA bus sits parked outside the COTA Customer Experience Center in Columbus last November.

In an emailed statement, COTA spokesman Jeff Pullin called Columbus City Schools a "valued partner" and said the transit system is "always eager to work with the district to help students achieve success."

“COTA and CCS were collaborating to solve the important issue of getting kids back into the classroom, and we are pleased a solution has been found," the statement said.

To further reduce bus demand, the district will continue to survey families through Friday about their willingness to voluntarily opt out of yellow bus services and bring their children to and from school. The idea is to prioritize seats for families who can't transport their children.

So far, 265 families have opted out, Dixon said Tuesday.

Families should expect to receive notification about their student's bus stop and pickup and drop-off times in the coming weeks, Dixon said.

The district will return to its pre-pandemic busing protocols for the 2021-22 school year, which means it will no longer reduce capacity on buses by placing one student to a seat, Bryant said.

Columbus school board meetings reopen to the public

The school board also returned to a normal practice Tuesday, opening its evening meeting to a public audience for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Few people attended, though.

All board meetings are now scheduled to occur at the district's administrative offices at 3700 S. High St. on the South Side, which offers more space and technology options than the Downtown building where the district has hosted its meetings for years.

The district will also continue to stream meetings online using Facebook Live and YouTube, though, and participants can sign up to offer public comments over the phone instead of attending in-person.

Regular meetings begin at 5:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of each month.