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Columbus City Schools to overhaul all school bus routes over winter break

Alison Holm

After hundreds of complaints about students left stranded, the Columbus City School district is overhauling the entire transportation system before January - affecting 35,000 students every day. Citing the national bus driver shortage and a poor choice of routing software, over the winter break the district will update bus routes and shift riders to make better use of the drivers available.

The problem has been growing since last school year. The driver shortage has been a problem throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Columbus increased pay, accelerated training and contracted with outside providers to fill the gaps. The district switched to AlphaRoute, a Massachusetts company that promised "MIT-based-algorithms" to streamline bus routes, and last November CCS Transportation director Rob Weinheimer wrote a glowing review of AlphaRoute's performance. But the district continued to struggle to get buses to students, and parents scrambled to get kids to school. Last school year the Ohio Department of Education fined Columbus $11 million for failing to transport students effectively.

District leaders spent $1.5 million more for software for this school year, but poor communications and bureaucracy made correcting shortfalls even more cumbersome, and more students were left waiting on the curb. By the end of October, ODE had received over 100 complaints from parents about buses. School board president Jennifer Adair admitted "we didn't think it out quite right" and Superintendent Talisa Dixon asked parents and students for "grace" while they sorted out the problem. While Columbus claimed they began the school year with sufficient drives to transport students, they admitted they didn't have enough of a margin to adjust for drivers who called off.

District officials have long complained that a state law that requires Columbus to provide transportation for all students within the district area, including charter and non-public schools, makes the task even more complicated. While the district was able to stagger start times to better utilize buses, they had no control over non-public schools schedules.

In a communication Monday night the district said they will drop the AlphaRoute software and return to the previous Versatrans system, and will rework bus routes, schedules and assignments by the end of the month.

In addition, they will overhaul communications with families, starting with written letters, and followed by emails and texts, and a new tool called EZDistrict which will communicate directly with parents when a bus is late or a route is uncovered.

And - officials say the district is still hiring new bus drivers, and the job fair is "around the clock" with online applications.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.