No one knows for certain when, how, or where the rumor started. But sometime last fall word floated out that the Board of Education planned to abolish home-to-school bus pickups for kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders (home pickup for older children was stopped years ago).

Almost immediately angry parents started phoning board headquarters to complain that the new policy would force their children to gather at street-corner stops to wait for school buses, regardless of how cold it is or how dangerous the street is. Board officials have tried to assure parents that no decision on home pickup has been made, but few parents believe them. It’s one more example of the postreform struggle between activists and administrators over control of the schools.

“We don’t have any plans to drop home pickup,” says Marj Halperin, press secretary for general superintendent Ted Kimbrough. “We have asked a private consultant to study our overall busing policy–and yes, you can expect some changes, because the system doesn’t work. But there are no specific proposals on the table, because the study is not finished. So there is nothing for people to get upset about yet.”

“She [Halperin] told me the same thing, but I still think Kimbrough and the board have made up their minds on home pickup,” counters Nancy Bussan, a member of the local school council at the Walt Disney magnet school. “And even if they haven’t, we’re not going to sit around with our fingers up our noses waiting for the board to tell us what to do. This is a new day. Parents are supposed to get involved in the schools. We demand a say!”

At issue is a $78-million-a-year busing program that began in the mid-1970s as an outgrowth of a desegregation lawsuit filed by civil rights activists. School officials capitulated when it looked as though they would lose the case and have to face court-enforced busing. They signed a consent decree, volunteering to create special programs at magnet schools that, it was hoped, would draw children of all races from all over the city.

The magnet programs were an instant hit, particularly among middle-class parents who otherwise might have moved to the suburbs or at least sent their children to private schools. Competition at Disney, for instance, is so fierce (last year 3,000 students applied for 300 vacancies) that enrollment is controlled by a lottery that’s manipulated to guarantee an even mix of blacks, whites, and Hispanics.

“Disney offers special programs in art, communication, and science. I wouldn’t want my kids going anywhere else,” says Bussan. “The opportunities are enormous.”

Along with the educational opportunities, however, came the transportation headaches. Many children live miles from their magnet schools, and few have parents who can drive them (which is often discouraged for fear the cars would block school driveways). So the board subcontracts with 35 private bus companies to transport 50,000 children (including 16,000 special-education students) in 2,900 buses. “It’s a bigger bus operation than the CTA’s,” says Bussan. “Disney’s right on the lakefront, but we have children coming from as far away as the far west side.”

The extensive busing is an administrative nightmare, complete with horror stories about late buses, rude drivers, and long rides. It’s not unusual for children to be stranded at their pickup sites for hours (even in subzero weather) because buses have broken down or drivers have not reported to work. Until recently, most schools had no way of knowing how many buses were on the street on any given day. The management of the school board’s bureau in charge of busing was chaotic, and charges of corruption were common. In 1989 the former busing director went to jail for taking about $200,000 in bribes from the owners of two bus companies.

“I got involved with busing when my daughter started taking a bus to her school, and you wouldn’t believe the things I have seen,” says Thelma Lewis-DeMet, a north-side parent. “I used to follow the buses every day in my car. I saw drivers sign in for each other. That means one driver would get credit for dropping off a load of kids, even if the bus broke down and he never picked them up. They were billing the schools for more work than they did.”

At the urging of parents the board recently adopted some accounting procedures. “We now have bus monitors at every school who check the buses in every day and see how many kids were picked up,” says Lewis-DeMet. “Believe me, that makes things better.”

But other problems, particularly discipline on the buses, persist. “Most buses don’t have any adult supervisors other than the driver,” says Lewis-DeMet. “It’s hard for one driver to maintain peace among 30 to 35 children. I feel for some of those drivers. They’re stuck in morning rush-hour traffic, and you’ve got fights, or kids standing up in the aisle, or hanging out the window. It’s not easy. It can get dangerous.”

Despite the responsibilities, drivers are hardly well paid. Few make more than $6 an hour, even though the job requires the same commercial driver’s license that higher-paying trucking jobs do. Not surprisingly, turnover is high. And it’s often the best drivers who leave. “At one point my daughter went through eight drivers in nearly two months,” says Lewis-DeMet. “Can you blame them for leaving? They’ll make twice as much money driving a big truck, and they don’t have the hassle of kids. There’s a lot of competition for good drivers, and we don’t always get the best ones. As they say, you get what you pay for.”

In an effort to correct such problems the interim school board (whose members have since been replaced) last fall commissioned Ralph Moore, a private consultant, to study the busing system. Many activists protested that the report (which could cost as much as $180,000) was too costly and unnecessary. “The consultant and the interim board members kept talking about carrying cargo, like it was fruit and not kids the buses were carrying,” says Lewis-DeMet. “It’s another example of how they throw money away. If they really wanted to solve these problems, they would have appointed a task force that included parents.”

School officials ask that parents give the report, which is due in the early spring, a chance. “We want to improve services,” says Halperin. “But we have no preconceived idea of what the consultant will recommend.”

Nonetheless, as word of the study spread, many parents worried that home pickups would be dropped. Indeed, Robert Johnson, current director of the board’s Bureau of Student Transportation Services, had already come out against continuing them. “We are the only system in the country that picks up children at home,” he says. “We are still transporting children the way we did 12 years ago when we were only moving 3,000. If we keep this up, our budget will soon exceed $100 million.”

According to Johnson, drivers lose time winding through narrow, one-way residential side streets where maneuverability is limited. He says it would make more sense to have children gather at selected pickup sites (such as the nearest public school). “The distance traveled almost doubles with home pickup. There are more stops. And the driver has to wait for the child to leave his house, walk down the steps, and get into the bus.”

Many parents were aghast at Johnson’s suggestion. “Great. Let’s just leave a bunch of first-graders on a street corner or in a school yard in the middle of the winter to wait for a bus that may be an hour late,” says Bussan. “What are the kids supposed to do if the bus doesn’t show? Go home? What if their parents work? Stay in the playground? Great. That makes them open targets for gangs and criminals.”

The issue blew up at a December 11 meeting attended by more than 600 parents and activists from several north-side magnet schools. One man held aloft a sign that read: “Keep the child at home, not at a street corner waiting to be shot, molested, run over, or kidnapped.”

During his opening remarks, Johnson made it clear that neither Kimbrough nor the board were bound to follow his home-pickup advice. “This is only a recommendation,” he told the crowd. “If [Kimbrough’s] decision is to do as we have in the past, we will abide by that.”

Few parents were moved by such assurances. “If we send our kids to the same corner the same way at the same time every day that makes them sitting ducks,” said Bussan. “This is our future–these are our children.”

The crowd cheered, but Johnson held his ground. “On questions of the dangers that are always inherent in any urban area, we have looked at other cities, and we are the only school system with home pickup,” said Johnson. “We will not put in a program that jeopardizes the life of a single child.”

Neither side walked away satisfied, although Halperin has been quick to erase any impression that Johnson speaks for Kimbrough or the board. “No matter what Johnson may have recommended, the superintendent has not made up his mind about home pickup,” she says. “And he won’t make up his mind until the study is completed.”

Some reformers are angling to have control of busing left to the local schools–a proposition Kimbrough opposes. “The reform act does not give local schools the authority to contract,” says Halperin. “And even if schools could ratify separate bus contracts, it wouldn’t make any sense because it would cost more money. We get group rates because we buy in bulk. That’s why schools don’t go down to the supply store and buy their own paper and pencils. It would cost too much money.”

At the very least, parents want Kimbrough to appoint and listen to a parental task force on busing before he makes any decision. If he doesn’t, the demand for local control should increase. “I wish they would give us the money and let us run the bus operation on our own,” says Bussan. “That would cut down on bureaucratic interference and be in the spirit of local control and reform. Of course it would drive Kimbrough and the board nuts to do that. God forbid they should give us a little more power. They wouldn’t do it without a fight. Although I promise they’ll get a fight if they abolish home pickup.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.