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IPS Proposes Shifts to Transportation Services to Address Budget Shortfall

In a financially fragile time for many school districts, Indianapolis Public Schools is facing a number of tough decisions to ensure a continuation of services for students while also managing a budget shortfall. 

Even before the district faced navigating the crisis of the global pandemic, district leadership was already considering ways to leverage limited funds most effectively. COVID-19 further accelerated the timeline to act as the district faces a $15 million budget shortfall for the current school year that must be addressed.

“Our core business is teaching and learning. We want our students to have an incredible academic experience every time they come into our schools,” said Aleesia Johnson, IPS superintendent. “As we’re making these decisions, we want to ensure we’re not just maximizing our dollars but making sure we have excellent services to deliver to our students.“

For a number of years, the district has been evaluating ways to be more efficient with transportation, maximize efficiencies and still have high-quality service for students. 

  • In 2016, IPS leased more than 100 new fuel-efficient propane buses to reduce fuel costs. 
  • In the 2017–18 school year, the district modified the bell structure to reduce daily routes and buses. 
  • The following school year, the district reduced after-school and extra-curricular busing options to be more aligned with peer districts and decrease overall transportation costs.
  • In July 2020, IPS outsourced all transportation services to First Student in order to reduce transportation spending. 

For the 2021–22 school year, the administration is proposing additional transitions in transportation services. 

  • Some high school students would be transferred from yellow bus service to IndyGo, reducing the number of yellow bus routes needed for student transport. 
  • The existing board policy regarding school walk zones would be executed at every school across the district, further reducing the number of bus routes required.

“Thinking about the proposal regarding IndyGo, it is a critical transition from a financial standpoint for the district. There’s no need to duplicate services when we have a strong service in the city,” said Johnson. “We think this is a partnership that makes sense, will help us save dollars and give our students not only access to school each day, but also access to the broader community.”

“The partnership with IPS is a very important one to us and has proven to be very successful,” said Inez Evans, IndyGo president and chief executive officer. “We have the infrastructure in place when it comes to the number of buses. There may be some small tweaks needed in order to meet all of the needs of IPS as they manage the transition. But we can get the job done.”

IndyGo and IPS are in the final stage of a three-year pilot program. Through that program, every high school student at Arsenal Tech, Crispus Attucks, George Washington and Shortridge high schools was given an annual IndyGo pass as part of their student ID. That pass provides them universal access to IndyGo’s network at no cost to the student. 

Angus Ely-Smith, a senior at Shortridge, lives downtown and started using his IndyGo bus pass immediately starting in his sophomore year.

“It’s an easy no-cost way for me to get to school and around the city,” said Ely-Smith. “I live along the Red Line and never have a long wait for the bus, plus my ride time is shorter than when I rode the yellow bus. I work in Broad Ripple and also ride the bus there. But in my free time, I find myself downtown a lot. I find myself in Fountain Square a lot and I think IndyGo easily gets me wherever I want to go.”

Evans said giving students a bus pass is a gateway for them to experience the rest of the city. “They can use our system seven days a week, 365 days a year. It gives them an opportunity to study in other places. They can go to the library, take on an internship, employment and more that can’t be provided by the yellow bus service that takes them from home to school and back again,” she said.

The IndyGo transition in the first year would start with students who are best positioned to ride public transit, including those who live near an IndyGo route that would allow them to go from home to school, often in less time than what it currently takes them on a yellow bus. The goal is to slowly expand the number of students served on IndyGo each year, reducing the number served by yellow buses. This plan could eventually move as many as half of all high school students to IndyGo. 

Crispus Attucks Principal Lauren Franklin has seen some positive effects of the increased use of public transit on school attendance.

“I love the flexibility that it gives our students,” said Franklin. “For families who don’t have consistent transportation, IndyGo gives our students a level of independence so they’re able to take more responsibility for their attendance. With yellow bus transportation, if a student misses the bus and their mom is at work that student misses school for the day. However, IndyGo allows them to get to school in a timely manner while also sharpening their problem-solving skills.”

Regardless of the changes to transportation, students with special needs and those receiving McKinney-Vento services will continue to receive transportation services per their Individualized Education Plan or their McKinney-Vento status, respectively. 

Meanwhile, a heated battle in the Indiana Statehouse is causing some concern as lawmakers debate Senate Bill 141. If the public transit bill passes, it will significantly impact IndyGo’s ability to expand its infrastructure improvements and launch the next two bus rapid transit lines.

“Our existing routes run well, are high-quality and high frequency,” said Evans. “They’re going to continue to be a part of the IndyGo system regardless of what happens with the blue and purple lines. We will work closely with IPS to slowly transition a smaller group of students the first year to ensure a strong start to this process in spite of the uncertainty surrounding the legislation.”

In addition to IndyGo, IPS will begin fully executing a walk zone Board policy that has been on the books since 1998. The move for the 2021–22 school year will focus on safety and include additional crossing guards where needed.

“We executed our walk zones policy at 13 schools this school year in an effort to move more than 3,000 students off of yellow buses given COVID concerns,” said Johnson. “We brought in crossing guards to help students safely travel to school and that’s been a successful endeavor. As a result, we think we’re positioned to expand that across all our schools to be sure our students are safe, the district gets some savings, but we’re not negatively impacting the experience our students have in schools every day.”

The Board will vote on the IndyGo proposal during the April Board Action Session on April 29. Executing the walk zone policy at all IPS schools does not require Board approval because it is an existing policy.

For more information on the district’s transportation plans for the 2021–22 school year, visit the Transportation page HERE.