New transportation monitoring system for school districts may lead to significant penalties
A surge in bus driver staffing needs may lead to steep penalties from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and their new compliance monitoring system. A combination of factors have made bus drivers hard to come by in Ohio, including a wave of retirements, competition from the commercial trucking industry and, most recently, a spike in absences due to COVID-related illness. A survey conducted by the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation last fall reported that over half of the 300+ districts that responded had to cancel routes and nearly a quarter were “in desperate need” of drivers.
The recent bout of cancellations coincides with the rollout of a new compliance monitoring system for pupil transportation by ODE. The system began as a statewide pilot in October 2021 and will be fully integrated by April 2022. The system is meant to hold districts accountable to its legal transportation obligations1 – namely, the requirement to transport all eligible students, including those who choose private or community (charter) schools. The new system includes:
- The completion of a list of assurances (by August 1 each year)
- A parent or school complaint process (followed by an investigation)
- Random school transportation audits (10-12 schools each month)
The complaint process allows parents, community schools and nonpublic schools to report instances of non-compliance to the Office of Field Services and Transportation. During investigations, the office will consider the following questions:
- What date did the non-compliance start?
- How long has it been taking place?
- Is there a current resolution in place?
- Is a pupil transportation compliance monitoring review required?
Importantly, if there is specific evidence of noncompliance for a “consistent or prolonged” period of time, the Office of Field Services and Transportation will refer the matter to the Office of Budget and School Funding, which could then reduce transportation funds paid to the district for each day of noncompliance. A violation is considered “prolonged” if it results in 10 consecutive school days of noncompliance. It is “consistent” if it results in 10 total school days of noncompliance in any given semester. This could easily add up to thousands of dollars. For example, Groveport Madison Schools, one of four school districts to be found in violation this school year, estimated their fine would be upwards of $700,000.2 The district is suing ODE for how it is interpreting and enforcing the provisions.
School districts should familiarize themselves with the new monitoring system to ensure they are in compliance. If a school district is facing a staffing shortage, it may wish to consult with its legal counsel to determine what alternatives are available in order to avoid the financial penalties that could result from a finding.
2 This estimate was based on a daily funding allocation of $53,000 and 13 days of noncompliance. In a recent press article, an ODE spokesperson stated that ODE had not yet identified the final fine amount.