July 1, 2022

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Innovative school transportation proposals awarded funds

NOGALES, Ariz. — School is almost out, but a lot of districts are already looking ahead to the fall as a deepening transportation crisis loom. Driver shortages and fuel costs are just some of the problems.

In the border town of Nogales, the school bus driver shortage has hit hard, putting stress on its ability to handle student transport for school, athletics and afterschool programs.

“We personally have one person that can part-time drive busses for us,” said Angelina Canto, Nogales Unified’s assistant superintendent. “That’s the only person in our district who’s certified here in our county.”

Canto says winning a $550,000 transportation grant will help them tackle the problem in a new way.

“The way Nogales Unified is using this grant is to purchase nine 15 passenger vans,” said Canto.

The fleet will supplement their currently contracted yellow buses but won’t require a CDL-licensed driver.

“The teacher can drive the bus. Any staff member can drive the bus,” said Canto.

The $20 million dollars in funding is being awarded to districts with innovative solutions to their transportation needs.

“It’s time that we give leaders, give entrepreneurs permission, right? To be able to lead and come up with different solutions on how to safely but efficiently and effectively get kids to school,” said Emily Anne Gullickson, founder and CEO of ‘A for Arizona.’ They’ve administered and distributed 19 of the $20 million dollars to 24 awardees on behalf of the state’s transportation modernization efforts.

“Grantees could do one solution or a bundle of options,” she said.

The innovative approaches have spawned multiple transit solutions to address each community’s specific need— 40% of them are in rural and remote communities.

“There’s a carpool app that’s affordable, being built to make sure we can express route kids in certain regions,” said Gullickson.

Empower College Prep, a charter school in Phoenix, was spending $500,000 a year to contract with a for-profit busing company.

“We also had experiences where we would be called at 5:00 in the morning and told that 40 kids weren’t going to arrive that day,” said Empower College Prep executive director Brian Holman. “During the pandemic, we were told that we would have to pay for transportation if we weren’t using it.”

Holman says their solution was to do away with contracted busing altogether. With a $600,000 grant, they purchased their own fleet and hired their own drivers full-time.

“Instead of having bus drivers spend two hours in the morning, two days in the afternoon, controlling chaos on a bus, we invite bus drivers to be part of our community,” said Holman.

“Being on the campus during the middle of the day was also a big deal,” said Elton Beldock, a staff bus driver for Empower College Prep. “I was looking for that kind of involvement, which I didn’t get where I used to be.”

The 20% annual cost savings will allow them future purchases of more environmentally friendly buses and money to hire one-and-a-half additional teachers each year.

Gullickson says each proposal is tailored to the needs of the individual school and district. It’s something that she thinks other states could replicate.

“In an ideal world, we want multiple transit options on the table so that no family is left without being able to enroll their child in the public school where their child’s going to thrive,” Gullickson said.