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Mississippi’s second largest school district is adjusting the way its transportation department gets students to and from school amid criticism from the state.
At a Tuesday night meeting, the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees approved a strategic plan for the transportation department in response to the Mississippi Department of Education’s investigative audit, which found the district chronically fails to get students to school on time.
The district’s department of transportation is responsible for ferrying more than 18,000 students a day, managing more than 200 bus routes, and maintaining the fleet of 229 buses, according to the document.
At a work session in May, the board discussed with consultants how 20 to 30 percent buses arrived late daily during the school year because of a lack of buses and personnel, which caused some drivers to have to double up on routes. MDE’s findings, listed in the district’s corrective action plan, said school buses often come to school an hour late and cause issues in the cafeteria because of late arrivals. The audit also cited the district for failing to properly document bus driver professional development.
The district’s plan is designed to address transportation management, policies and practices, routing and technologies, and fiscal affairs.
And broader issues may come into play.
Moving forward, interim superintendent Freddrick Murray said the district may consider implementing a staggered start time for schools, as well as doing away with door-to-door pickups for some programs.
“There will be some tough decisions that have to be made that we will definitely need the support of the board and the community as it relates to some changes that are absolutely necessary for us to have buses on time,” Murray said.
Director of transportation Derick Williams told board members the department is currently focused on hiring 30 additional bus drivers before July 4. According to the strategic plan, the transportation department currently employs about 280 employees. Of that, Williams told Mississippi Today 206 are bus drivers.
Williams said the department started recruiting candidates by reaching out to local community colleges and sending out flyers to current bus drivers to share at their churches or places of worship, among other methods.
“The first phase of the plan is very important, and that’s recruiting and retention,” said Calvin Lockett, interim deputy superintendent of operations. “We must have drivers, I don’t care how many buses we order, if we don’t have humans to drive them it’s been pointless.”
Lockett elaborated, telling the board the department will also beginning thinning out the department of “excess weight.”
“We’re going to scale down on our department,” Lockett said when board president Beneta Burt asked about wording in the document. “It’s going to be the real deal when we get through with this.”
“If you’re not qualified to drive a bus, or you can’t step out of the terminals to drive a bus, you probably won’t be a part of us for much longer because we’re looking for drivers,” Lockett said.
The plan also mentions some of the issues facing the department, such as declining enrollment and school closures and the current requirement for door-to-door pick up for students in some special programs or alternative schools.
The district is already attempting to remedy some of those issues — during the meeting, the board approved a resolution for JPS to enroll in a “master lease-purchase program” with the state, which will add new buses to the fleet. The resolution authorizes up to $4 million in spending by the district. Chief financial officer Sharolyn Miller told the board the district has enrolled in similar programs before, and participating in a lease-purchase program helps drive down interest rates.
“It has worked very well for us and the state supports this,” she said. “It’s better for us than to go out and privately place them.”
Last month, the board balked at a contract with private vendor First Student, Inc. The contract would have made First Student responsible for bus driver recruitment, reworking routes, and gave the district the option to purchase their own buses or have them provided by the company.
The district is hosting a job fair for prospective bus drivers on Saturday, June 17 from 9 a.m. to noon at 621 South State Street in Jackson.
According to the district, eligible candidates need a valid type “B” commercial driver’s license with passenger and school bus endorsements, a high school diploma or equivalent, and must be able to pass a drug test and police record check. To learn more about job requirements and eligibility, those interested can also call 601-960-8919 or visit the district website.