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Charter schools scrambling, upset as DPS finalizes new busing plan

Students board a school bus outside Dayton’s Ruskin Elementary. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF
Students board a school bus outside Dayton’s Ruskin Elementary. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Some charter schools and families in Dayton are upset that student busing plans are still up in the air just one month before classes start, as Dayton Public Schools changes its busing system for a second year in a row.

Dayton’s school board announced this summer that it is dedicating its traditional yellow school buses solely to students who attend DPS schools, and will pay to transport local charter and private school students on special RTA routes that last school year carried DPS high schoolers.

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Ohio law requires school districts to provide busing for most charter and private school students who live within the district’s boundaries.

But the details of routes and bus stops and pick-up times are still being developed, just as parents are facing deadlines on whether to send their children back to in-person school amid COVID-19 concerns, and trying to figure out how to handle child care.

DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli met with charter and private school principals in a Zoom meeting Monday. Lolli said RTA routing is undergoing final reviews, and she hopes by Friday, schools will know details like how many RTA buses will serve their schools and when they’ll arrive.

“We don’t want to drag them along any longer than we have to,” Lolli said. “We have to tell our parents and they have to tell their parents about routing.”

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But Emerson Academy Principal Landon Brown accused DPS of intentionally throwing busing into chaos this summer to try to lure charter students back to DPS schools. More than 6,500 Dayton students attend charter schools, and another 3,000 attend private schools on DPS vouchers.

“They’re treating our kids differently and they’re placing an unfair burden at the last minute to take away school choice from our parents,” Brown said. “We needed this information like, yesterday.”

Lolli said this is not a move to recruit students back to DPS, saying that would be unacceptable. She said the district simply had to make changes to fix a woefully underperforming busing system.

“DPS is trying to have efficient and effective transportation for all students,” Lolli said. “After a year filled with charter school and DPS students sitting sometimes for two hours because of uncovered routes and drivers, something has to change.”

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DPS has struggled for years to find enough drivers, and they’re not alone. More than a dozen local school districts have current job postings for drivers on the Dayton-area school consortium hiring site, as CDL-licensed drivers choose from a surge of warehouse driving jobs in the area.

So last year, Dayton signed a five-year contract with RTA to design limited-service bus routes to deliver high school students to and from school in small morning and afternoon windows. Now RTA is redesigning those routes to serve dozens of charter and private schools instead.

Karyn Hecker, regional director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Schools Office, is optimistic about the RTA plan for local Catholic schools, saying she “sees a lot of positives.”

But Hecker said one big issue has to be resolved. RTA policy says children 12 and under must have an adult ride with them. RTA Executive Director Mark Donaghy said last month that one school-hired monitor or aide per bus would meet that requirement.

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All parties said Tuesday that it hadn’t yet been decided who would hire those aides, who would pay them, and who would have liability for them.

Lolli said she asked charter school principals if they would provide aides for buses, but most said they couldn’t do so. Some pointed to a July 8 letter from state superintendent of schools Paolo DeMaria, stating that school districts “cannot impose requirements on nonpublic or community schools in terms of providing staff support or incurring other expenses to meet the district’s obligations.”

Lolli acknowledged Tuesday that a proposal to buy bus passes for parents, so they could ride to school with their children, was not feasible.

“If we’re able to save with RTA in our budgeted amount for transportation, then Dayton Public would provide the monitor for the routes,” Lolli said. “But that’s dependent on what the RTA cost is going to be.”

There’s also a question of interviewing, backgrounding and hiring those monitors in a matter of weeks.

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Nicole Robinson-Cooper’s sixth-grade daughter has ridden DPS yellow buses from the WestTown area to the North Dayton School of Discovery in the past. She said DPS bus timing was so unreliable that she bought her daughter a cell phone so she could track her location when the bus was late.

But just as Robinson-Cooper is deciding whether to send her daughter back to school or have her do distance learning, the busing angle is making her pause, because she doesn’t know the details.

“I’m not in agreement with little kids being on that bus. I don’t want to put my daughter (on the RTA) by herself,” she said. “The Project Mobility buses pull up right to your house … but if she has to walk to Third Street by herself for (an RTA bus), I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Brown said the busing details are a huge factor for families at Emerson, where more than 500 of 650 students rode DPS buses last year, and on-time performance was spotty. Brown said he’s glad Lolli suggested quarterly meetings in the future to build better relationships between DPS and charters. He said he’ll be part of that, but said this episode was a bad way to start.

“If you wanted us to be effective partners, we could have been part of this decision making process and found creative solutions,” Brown said. “Instead they came up with this solution six weeks before school starts. That’s just not right.”