Left at the Bus Stop

Ada Basic, Editor-in-Chief

A yellow school bus turns the corner and heads towards school, just in time for morning drop off. From the outside, the bus is ready to drop off its passengers and move along, but on the journey the bus drives past several students walking in the blistering Iowa winter. Why? They live too close to their school to qualify for free bussing.  

Every child in the United States has the right to public education, what they are not guaranteed, however, is a way of getting there. Iowa Code Chapter 285 Section 1 states that elementary students are entitled to transportation if they live more than two miles from their school, and that secondary students are only entitled to transportation if they live three miles from their school. Johnston has decided to instead put in place a one-mile rule for elementary students and a two-mile rule for secondary students. This has helped to prevent some students who would, quite literally, hop on the bus to cross the street. 

The distance requirement does not necessarily exclude students who live within the boundary, but it does give them a few more hoops to jump through. “For students living closer than the one mile elementary requirement or two mile Johnston High School requirement, paid ridership is available based on a space-available, or open-seats only, basis,” Chief Financial Officer Jan Miller-Hook said in an online interview. “This means that if there are seats available on a bus route, transportation will be provided for a fee of $250 per semester. The decision for offering any available seats will be done so using a distance rubric for families (i.e. furthest from school receives first consideration).”

Students who live within the boundaries and are willing to pay for the transportation are not promised a spot on the bus. “I had to apply for it.,” Orville Kabamba ‘20 said. “There’s no promise, like ‘We’re gonna give you a bus, but if we do find an available spot on the bus, that goes on your route, then we can let you know so you can pay for it.’”

Trying to secure a spot on the buses has proven to be a challenge for the students that need it. “Yes I had to call them and call them, and like okay school started I don’t know if I take the bus or not. So I had to call my counselor and tell her to make sure she gave me the right contact of the school bus transportation manager and I had to email them,” Kabamba said. Some students, due to language barriers, have to figure out how to sign up for this service by themselves. “I had to do that. I had to figure out how to pay for it, and force them to make sure they answered me.” 

“They emailed me and they were like ‘Hey you have to pay for last semester’ I’m like ‘Yeah I forgot, I’ll pay for it differently. And I was kind of scared they were gonna kick me out because I didn’t pay for it but they accepted me to ride the bus, which I think makes more sense. It’s common sense, you can’t refuse to offer a kid a bus because they can’t afford it, no bus no education.” 

Superintendent Laura Kacer used to work as the Executive Director of Human Resources, and part of her job included handling the transportation of students. Because the district has gone private, this was taken off of Kacer’s plate. “Transporting them is a whole other beast and to be truly good at that you need to spend the time and focus solely on that effort,” Kacer said. “And before we privatized transportation, I was executive director of HR and that was one of the duties I had in addition to trying to hire and retain teachers. So my focus was definitely split between trying to get high quality teachers in the classroom and then make sure that our transportation was running smoothly.”

The argument could be made that this improved the way the district works. “I think it’s hard sometimes when school districts try to do everything and what I mean by that is what we really should focus our time and attention on is being really good at educating kids,” Kacer said. 

The lack of transportation has also proven to make sports a challenge. “It makes them damn near impossible,” Diego Perez-Celeste ‘21 said. “School activities almost assume students have their own means of transportation, When we don’t, it makes life a living hell. Having to leave and come back, with a car not always available, it’s not fun.” For example, on Wednesday afternoons while teachers are in professional development meetings, students are told to leave the building. Several sports hold late practices so student athletes are expected to leave school only to come back a couple of hours later. This creates problems for students without transportation. “I had to have a friend come pick me up on their way to practice, if he wasn’t available, neither was I,” Perez-Celeste said. 

Some students have to give up playing sports because of their need for bussing. “No I used to but no, because I have to work and get money and if I’m playing a sport then I can’t work and then I can’t have the bus and I can’t afford the bus or a car,” Kabamba said. 

A solution to this could be setting up a route for an activities bus. “I would love to see a bus route that takes kids to maybe three or four stops, we need that so bad in this district,” head wrestling coach Aaron Tecklenburg said. “And from an equity standpoint, from providing opportunities for kids who need transportation, to me that’s #1 on the list if we really want to make sure we’re providing opportunities for kids and opportunities for people to participate, that’s top of the list. Let’s figure out how we can get this bussing company to include an activity bus.” The district’s contract with Student Transportation of America expires June 30, 2021 with a new agreement negotiation planned, an activity bus could be included in those negotiations. 

The argument could be made that there is not room in the budget for an activities bus, however as part of an investigation into parking fines conducted by the Black & White, superintendent Laura Kacer provided the amount of money the school made from parking tickets in 2019 $58,795, which all went into the general fund. The general fund is used for teacher salaries, instructional supplies, and transportation. “We hear as teachers and coaches a lot about equity and making sure we’re providing opportunities and making sure it’s fair for everyone and to me that’s a huge step in the right direction,” Tecklenburg said.