schoolbus

5 months after Hurricane Harvey, school transportation in Houston area is a headache

Districts have had to cope with a shortage of drivers and complications caused by displaced students.

Student transportation in the Houston area remains out of whack five months after Hurricane Harvey pounded the region, school administrators say. 

The Houston Chronicle reports that flooding from the storm has made bus routes harder to navigate and led to an exodus of bus drivers from school systems already struggling to retain them. Many districts are hard-pressed to maintain services with little to no additional funding from the state and federal governments.

Among the challenges:

•Dozens of bus drivers left their jobs after the storm, either to live elsewhere or to seek higher-paying jobs.

•To comply with federal law, districts must transport thousands of displaced students, sometimes from other school districts, back to their schools of origin.

The Texas Education Agency told districts in October that it would cover the cost of transporting students displaced by the storm, including those residing outside their home school district, through the Foundation School Program. But that money has not yet made its way to many local school districts, officials say.

The Katy district is spending about $200,000 more per month on transportation since Harvey. The Houston district paid about $80,000 a month for charter buses to drive students from seven flooded campuses to temporary classrooms during the fall semester. The Spring district is spending an additional $15,000 a month so a third-party vendor can transport 80 displaced students.

"There is certainly no additional funding that has been made available as far as transportation is concerned," says Keith Kaup, director of transportation for the Spring district.

Transportation challenges since Harvey have frustrated parents and students, some of whom have abandoned school buses for Metro buses or carpools.

Lee Crews, chief operations officer in the Katy district, says it has been difficult for buses to get into certain neighborhoods because of the scale of Harvey's devastation.

School districts have complained for years about inadequate state transportation funding. The transportation funding system in Texas has not been changed by state lawmakers since 1984, nor has the rate at which the state reimburses school districts. 

Meanwhile, the number of persons pursuing bus-driving careers has been declining, officials say.

Rather than operating big rigs and school buses, people are signing up to drive smaller vehicles with services like Uber and Amazon. 

When Houston's Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby asked his transportation department how many drivers would be able to transport students after the storm hit in late August, he was stunned by the reply. About 120 of the district's roughly 900 bus drivers said they were unable to return.

The Katy district, which is about a third of the size of the Houston system, was down by about 30 drivers after the storm. To fill the gap, Katy officials asked sports coaches with commercial driver's licenses to take on bus routes.

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