Thousands of Chicago Public Schools families have been scrambling for weeks to arrange transportation for their children ahead of the new school year. This comes after the district abruptly announced late last month that it only had half of the bus drivers it would need to transport eligible students.
CPS is prioritizing students with disabilities and kids in temporary living situations – who are legally required to be routed – amid the ongoing national bus driver shortage. That leaves students in magnet or selective enrollment programs without bus services. They can instead get free CTA cards for the upcoming school year, which starts on Monday.
“For us, it’s going to be expensive in time and money. But for other people it’s going to cause enormous stress in their lives and that’s disappointing,” said Ryun Patterson, a Rogers Park resident and CPS parent. His daughter has had a CPS bus ride to school for the last eight years. Starting on Monday, he and his wife will split drop-off and pick-up transportation duties.
“It takes a village to raise a child and if CPS isn’t there to take our children to school … things are going to crumble and it’s only going to get worse for everybody,” added Lindsey Woods, whose 9-year-old son attends Inter-American Magnet School in Lakeview on the North Side.
It can take up to 40 minutes to drive a few miles from Lincoln Square to school in the mornings, Woods said. She works at a crossing guard on campus, which gives her the flexibility to handle drop offs and pickups. But a lack of bus services also limits Woods and others from applying for higher paying jobs.
“I can’t accept certain positions unless I know I have bus service,” she said. “But it would help me as a single mother to make more money.”
The driver shortage has been an acute problem for the district since students returned from remote learning in 2021, leaving families struggling to line up consistent CPS bus service. But at this time last year, CPS said it could route all 15,000 students whose families had already requested it. This year, only 7,000 families will have service by the first day of class – even though the district has slightly more bus drivers now than it did last year.
The district’s efforts to reduce route length is a key reason why fewer students are getting bus services this year, a spokesperson said. CPS now has 672 yellow school bus drivers, up from 656 drivers at this time last year. But the district says it’s trying to keep student travel time to 60 minutes or less. Routes last year had been extended up to 90 minutes, forcing some students to wake up as early as 5 a.m. to catch a ride to school.
Officials with bus companies also offer another reason for the ongoing driver shortage: Many candidates cannot pass CPS’s background checks. A manager at a CPS bus company said candidates are getting turned away over decades-old convictions.
Given the shortage, CPS is giving students with special needs and kids who are homeless who haven’t yet been routed $25 per school day. They can also opt to receive a monthly transportation stipend of up to $500. Families of about 3,000 students have already taken the stipend, compared to fewer than 1,000 this time last year.
Patterson says he’s not comfortable with his 13-year-old daughter taking the CTA to Disney Magnet School in the Uptown neighborhood. He was able to rearrange his schedule to handle pick ups in the afternoons, and his wife will drop her off in the mornings. The family plans to spend at least $15 a day on Uber rides.
“It’s gonna be a pain for us, but I can see it being absolute chaos for people who don’t have the flexibility I have,” he said. “Ideally we’ll figure out a solution before it breaks the bank.”
Patterson moved to Rogers Park about five years ago, and said they chose a location that would allow their daughter to stay at Disney and qualify for free bus services. The district used to offer free transportation for families who lived within a six mile radius of magnet programs in an effort to draw families from across the city and promote diversity and equity.
“I have no idea what the neighborhood schools have to offer,” Patterson said. “I’ve never even looked into it because we were really locked into the idea of the magnet school bringing kids from all over Chicago in one place.”
Most of the city’s magnet and test-in schools were created as a way to lure a diverse group of students, and though most are racially isolated, the integrated ones are among the only racially diverse schools in the city. There are concerns that without busing, parents will opt out, threatening those pockets of integration.
Bus driver shortage
CPS contracts with 13 school bus companies, and has added alternative modes of transportation like taxis and vans over the past two years to help deal with the bus driver shortage. But some say the district’s background check system is hindering their efforts to hire more drivers.
Brendyn Morgan, assistant manager at First Student, said he has about 130 bus drivers on staff with CPS routes but many more interested applicants.
“We’ll get some 2,000 applications in a given season, and due to background check issues, we’re only able to hire maybe 200 to 300 – maybe 400 [drivers],” Morgan said. “And something will come up from their past back when they were like 17-years-old. So that’s how in-depth it is.”
Morgan understands that CPS is “looking out for the safety of the children” and that it’s following state guidelines. He said the company has had conversations with CPS about background check issues, but that “there’s nothing that they can do about it.”
In a statement, the district said background checks have not been identified as a barrier in the hiring process.
Per state law, CPS requires that bus drivers complete a fingerprint-based background check, which includes checks of sex offender registries and the Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth registry. Anyone on those registries is automatically excluded. They also can’t have a conviction for a range of serious offenses, including murder, kidnapping, criminal sexual assault, hate crimes and robbery. Applicants who have been suffering from any mental disability or disease in the last five years are also disqualified.
But there are other legal hurdles for a driver candidate to overcome.
The state makes exceptions for drug convictions involving small amounts of cannabis since it was legalized in Illinois. But candidates are disqualified from getting a school bus driver permit if they have a Class A misdemeanor conviction in the last 20 years with larger amounts of cannabis – possessing between 30 and 100 grams or possessing between 2.5 and 10 grams with the intent to deliver.
Would-be drivers also have to pass a written test, consent to drug testing and have their driving record scrutinized. Drivers are disqualified if they have two or more “serious traffic offenses” within one year prior to their application. They can’t be convicted of reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs within three years of their application. They also can’t work if their license was suspended in the last three years for failure to pay child support.
On top of the state’s requirements, CPS also has a process for vetting all employees and contractors. Candidates with less serious convictions or with a DCFS finding of child abuse or neglect are reviewed by a district committee. CPS says candidates may be cleared for a job after considering the number of convictions, facts surrounding the case, evidence of rehabilitation, among other things, according to the district’s protocol. A candidate’s arrest record is also reviewed.
Residents may contact legal aid organizations like the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic for help with record expungements and to seek a court order called a “certificate of good conduct” to show they have been rehabilitated from past criminal conduct.
Morgan of First Student says his bus company tries to add incentives to entice drivers, such as hiring them full-time even though it’s only part-time work. The hours are typically 5 a.m. to roughly 10 a.m., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 1 p.m until about 5 p.m.
He also works with CPS to “throw an extra kicker” on top of hourly rates, including attendance, retention and signing bonuses. Last year, CPS increased the pay for bus drivers to a range of $20 to $25 an hour to be competitive with suburban pay rates.
“Money definitely brings in the crowd,” Morgan said. “It’s a good job, even if you’re just doing it part time.”
His company is planning to recruit more drivers through CPS job fairs this fall. The district held 17 hiring fairs for bus drivers this past school year and have more scheduled in the coming weeks.
CPS says it would need 1,300 bus drivers to transport all 17,000 students who are eligible. Any new applications will be processed on a rolling basis.
That’s not good enough for many CPS parents who are left without a ride now.
“What upsets me the most is the lack of communication, and waiting until two weeks before school starts to let us know that we have no bus,” said Maria Ugarte, a parent and local school council member at Inter-American.
Ugarte’s 7th grade daughter has a learning disability but didn’t qualify for busing or a $500 stipend this year – even though she was previously classified as a diverse learner.
The family opted for a transportation stipend during the pandemic but previously had relied on a CPS bus. They live in Humboldt Park, about six miles away from the Lakeview campus.
“I asked the principal [about busing] and he told me there is no solution,” Ugarte said. This is going to continue for a long time.”
Ugarte said about 60% of Inter-American students bused to school last year, but none of them have been assigned a route so far. She worries about how the issue might impact enrollment at the dual language school.
“So that’s over 300 students that don’t have a bus right now. I’m curious about how many kids have already transferred to another school,” she said. “So unfortunately, once again, the ones who suffer are the working families, low-income families.”
In the meantime, Ugarte is planning to wake up at 5 a.m. on weekdays to drive her daughter and nephews to school.