Emilie McKiernan Blanton teaches English to 9th graders at Southern High School in Louisville. She is also on the board of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.
We discussed last week’s meltdown of Louisville’s school bus system, policy changes that could prevent such issues in the future and the real motives (in her view) of some of the harshest critics of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS.) (This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.)
Perry: So around 65,000 students take buses to schools most days here in Louisville, of the approximately 96,000 students in our system. Do we know how many of those kids are taking a bus to the school closest to their house?
Emilie: The overwhelming majority of my students are bused less than two miles ……I do not know countywide.
My kids both attend their neighborhood school. My son didn't ride the bus on the first day because he had football practice, but my daughter did. She has always had to ride a bus, and it's always taken long.
Whenever we hear people talk about busing kids all over the county, it's important to know they bus kids all over the county in every single county, because the majority of the kids don't live that close to a school. If you’re living in Letcher County, you go to Central High School, that's the high school. There's only one. So they're busing from all over the county.
We’re not busing anyone purely for racial integration reasons at this point.
That is all gone.
When we see kids bused to a school that is not close to them, it’s the family that made the choice.
So if we wanted to reduce bus usage, one thing we could do is say that if you want your kid to go to a special magnet school, you have to drive them yourself.
Ostensibly, yes. But busing is also an equity issue. So if I have a student in the East End of Louisville who has parents that both work third shift and they can't drive their child to Southern to receive auto tech instruction, then that kid doesn't have access to everything that they could have.
Does that particular example happen often?
Yes. We actually have students from Eastern and Ballard resides that come here a lot. …If you want to learn how to fly a plane and take care of it, you have to go to Shawnee.
When we hear [Republican] legislators talk about things like school choice, we offer full and complete school choice in JCPS. But then if we bus the kids to that school choice, they get upset. But this is all parental and family choice.
So we are going to need buses, and probably lots of them.
We've been trying to recruit bus drivers pretty much the whole time I've been teaching and we've lowered the number of routes and lowered the number of routes and lowered the number of routes. And we've gotten to a point where we don't have enough bus drivers, so we had to reduce the routes further.
And that's what we saw on Wednesday. We didn't have enough drivers. Some drivers were driving seven, eight routes with multiple schools. This is a people-power problem. There are not enough people to make the machine run.
So you constantly hear that JCPS doesn’t need more dollars, it has a massive budget. How do you respond to that?
I passionately feel like some people just do not understand math well enough, to refer to that budget as massive considering all the things that we do and provide.
We have thousands of homeless students, thousands of English language learners. And we provide services for those kids.
Yes, it is a big budget for nearly 100,000 children.
Every time we've tried to raise our property taxes here, it becomes a nightmare with politicians saying, “Well, you should be able to do this with the budget. You already have it.”
No, we don't. We’ve got buildings with asbestos. And I understand maybe there was money mismanagement decades ago, I don't know because I wasn't alive or teaching at that point. But even if there was money mismanagement, why are we torturing today's kids with that? I don't care who was making decisions in 1975. I care about my kid right now.
Last year, my daughter didn't have a reading teacher, the year before that, my son didn't have a science teacher.
I don't care who was making decisions before or what decisions they made. I have a problem I need to fix now. And I know based on how the economy works, that if you have a shortage of staff, then you need to pay those people more. And you know, I've been screaming that from the rooftops about teacher salaries for years.
And I've sat in front of a bipartisan group of legislators and told them the buses would break first—and here we are.
So you think this is largely an issue of funding?
Absolutely. ….Would you drive 70 children where you're the only adult on the bus? I wouldn't, and I have a whole degree in how to manage children’s behavior. So yeah, it’s a funding and pay problem.
People say stuff about, well, if the kids just acted right. Behavior is a form of communication. Those kids are communicating, my needs are not being met. There’s 70 of us on here and we don't know where you're going and we don't know what you're doing. That's not the bus driver's fault. And that is not the kid's fault. There shouldn't be that many kids on a bus.
There shouldn't be only one adult on the bus. The adults on the bus should be paid a reasonable amount because I would like the people that take care of my children to be highly qualified and highly compensated because I care about my children.
So is the funding problem the local school system or the state?
There is some culpability with JCPS as far as a systemic issue. Was there something that could have been done in the central office differently that could have made this go off better? Probably.
With that said, we're missing $100 million just from the last four years in transportation funds from the state because they have not fully funded their constitutional obligation, they're funding it to about 70%.
So Republicans in the state legislature, instead of focusing purely on bus issues, floated the idea of breaking up the school district. Why do you think that’s the direction they went in?
They would like to have more versions of Anchorage. [An area within Louisville that has a small, independent school district.]
But let's go ahead and address it. They don't want JCTA or BSK [the Jefferson County Teachers Association and Better Schools Kentucky, its political arm] to be a powerhouse. And if we're a split-up district, our union doesn't exist anymore. We'll be 2, 3, 4 unions instead. And there goes the last stronghold of unionism in Louisville for professionals.
So you think the motive is pretty simple?
Oh yeah. I think the motive is to disenfranchise teacher voices from being able to endorse candidates like Andy Beshear.
What do you hope happens in the next week (when school will be back in), and then what should happen in January, when the state legislature comes back in session?
I hope next week we all safely and efficiently get to and from school as best as we can. As a JCPS parent, I'm relying on the bus system as well.
In January, if anybody would like to be reelected, they need to start campaigning on, “I will fully fund public education, including transporting your kid to school.” Because there are counties across the state that have canceled school for bus issues as well for bus shortages, particularly in Appalachia.
I hope in January they take a long hard look and realize that in trying to starve JCPS for political points, it is having a drastic effect on the rest of the state. There are other counties in the state that have had school canceled because of bus driver shortages. There are counties across the state where children don't have access to a bus at all, full stop, for the whole year, where parents are expected to provide transportation on every single school day for their own school that is closest to them.
I hope we can all come to a point where we understand that funding public education is bipartisan because the transportation piece has been underfunded since 2005.