Ohio Department of Education took back millions in transportation funding from schools last year
In the 2022 fiscal year, The Ohio Department of Education withheld $2,641,010 in transportation funding from Cincinnati Public Schools for non-compliance with the state's new pupil transportation provisions.
The school district has had issues with its transportation system for years and recently pointed to supply chain issues and a lack of drivers to explain frequent delays. Now, a state law included in HB 110 that went into effect in 2021 appears to have added another hurdle.
CPS is not alone. Other large districts in the state have also lost millions due to penalties stemming from transportation complaints investigated by the state.
The Dayton Public Schools Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Education in January claiming the department's actions are unreasonable and "will have catastrophic consequences on the schoolchildren served by DPS." Like Cincinnati, Dayton Schools had also received complaints but the district says ODE's rules are not fair for school systems that are responsible for significantly more students.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, districts can be penalized for consistent or prolonged non-compliance, which the lawsuit from DPS defines as 10 consecutive days or 10 days total days of non-compliance in a semester.
This rule applies to every district in the state, but some say having one set number of violations for a penalty puts larger districts in an unwinnable situation.
William Andexler is the transportation coordinator for Akron Public Schools and an Ohio Association of Pupil Transportation board member. He says many of that state's major districts have a lot more to handle when it comes to transportation compared to small districts.
"The numbers are bigger with everything — with busing, with staff, with students. There's just more of it being in a bigger district," Andexler said.
With those bigger numbers come more mistakes, which can add up quickly.
Andexler says the ODE will penalize schools for the amount of money they would have received in a day for each of the 10 days they were non-compliant, but it doesn't stop there. "You might have 20 days of non-compliance and you would get clawed back 20 times your daily funding," Andexler said.
Still, across the state, the story is almost the same in every district. Schools are trying to hire bus drivers, but can't find people to fill and stay in positions. Some districts have to also rely on school bus contractors facing many of the same issues.
While Andexler says the law was likely well-intentioned, the consequences of the ODE's penalties are weakening the transportation departments of school districts that were already struggling to keep up.
"We're still going to have to run buses. We're still going to have to pay for our fuel, our parts, and everything, but where's that money going to come from now? Well, it's going to come from the general fund. That's less money to go into the classroom," Andexler said.
Ohio's largest school districts are currently bearing the brunt of the ODE's new rules, but the state's other sizeable districts could be at risk if too if delays and complaints begin to pile up. Andexler says his department in Akron hasn't been penalized yet, but it has had complaints filed and continues to struggle to find people to drive buses.
Since each day that is determined not to be in compliance with state rules stems from submitted complaints, school districts will likely be doing what they can to limit delays and complaints from the public to avoid penalties.
Hamilton City School District sent a message to families on Wednesday saying, "Due to a bus driver shortage this week, afternoon bus routes may be delayed. We anticipate delays in drop-off times and apologize for the inconvenience this may cause. The issues will primarily affect our elementary school bus routes, but we will ensure all students are delivered home safely."
Hamilton City Schools says they have not been penalized for non-compliance.