With all of the hurdles facing school bus operators — tight budgets, growing regulatory demands, driver/aide shortages and discipline problems on buses, among other things—the task of transporting special-needs students has become even more challenging over the past several years.
That’s why we’ve been charting the path of special-needs transportation in annual surveys, the latest of which begins on pg. 20. What we’ve found is that there’s no single challenge that rises well above the others.
Still crunched for funds
With the still-struggling economy weighing heavily on state education budgets, funding issues continue to pressure transportation programs. Unfortunately, the cost of special-needs transportation is high and the enrollment of special-education students is growing. That’s a double-whammy for school transportation, especially as parental demands, reasonable and otherwise, are also increasing.
The respondents of our special-needs survey are all too aware of their predicament: “Our greatest challenge is trying to provide a service keeping in mind the costs and the student ride times. There seem to be more and more special-needs students, yet there does not seem to be more money to help pay for their programs,” said one respondent.
You need to keep fighting for increased funding. School boards have a lot of interest groups to accommodate; the transportation program should make its case at every possible opportunity.
The message should be loud and clear: “Yes, the classroom is at the heart of the educational process, but school transportation is a critical safety concern. Let’s balance these important academic objectives with the very real priority of getting students to and from school safely.”
Training needs to be bolstered
What we’re also hearing is that special-needs students, especially those with serious medical concerns, require drivers and aides who have specialized training. In many cases they’re not getting it. The reasons range from an inability to find qualified personnel to provide the training to the spectrum of disabilities presented by students.
“The disabilities are so diverse,” bemoaned one respondent. Another complained about the lack of opportunity to provide input on the transportation of medically fragile students. The latter problem should be addressed during the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. If transportation representatives are not at the table during these IEP meetings, that situation needs to be remedied.
In a positive development, the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education has urged the special-education community to work more closely with transportation providers. The agency also voiced support of programs that will produce “well-informed and well-trained” drivers and aides.
These nice-sounding words are better than indifference, but they are merely that — nice-sounding words. It’s up to people like you to force the issue by urging your special-education administrators and specialists to get involved in the transportation process. If nothing else, invite them to visit the bus compound and to ride along on some of your special-needs routes. They might develop some respect for the challenges you face and offer to lend a badly needed hand.