Editor's Note: This story has been updated to say IPS could save up to $7 million when the district adds the re-scheduling of the new bus routes in the fall after IPS provided additional information and corrected their numbers.
INDIANAPOLIS — Changes to busing and walking to school are part of a cost-savings plan to keep an $18 million budget shortfall from impacting academic instruction for Indianapolis Public Schools.
Proposed enforcement of walk zones and the use of IndyGo to transport a couple hundred high school students are expected to now save the district up to $7 million when the district adds the re-scheduling of the new bus routes in the fall.
"I want to make sure we are protecting that teaching and learning environment," IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said.
Approximately 4,173 students who live within their neighborhood schools will be expected to walk as the district enforces its walk zone policy.
Elementary students who live within less than a mile from their school are expected to walk, as are middle school students who live within 1.25 miles and high school students who live within 1.5 miles from their building.
In October, James Whitcomb Riley School 43, Christian Park School 82, and CFI Schools 27 and 84 were among the 13 which enforced the walk zone policy under a pilot program. At the time, this was in response to COVID-19 to reduce the number of kids on school buses as part of a safety and social distancing campaign.
The 13 schools — which also happen to be located near some of the busiest intersections — were assigned crossing guards.
The walk zones will be an expectation for all schools in the fall of 2021.
Under the new plan, not everyone will have to walk. Students with special needs and those experiencing homelessness are among the ones who, per federal mandate, will continue to get bus service.
The district will also review all family requests and will make exceptions involving the health and safety of the child. The process of how families can make those requests is being worked on.
The superintendent says she has reached out to city leaders to discuss the condition of sidewalks and lighting surrounding schools.
“So when there is an opportunity, we want to make sure we are using our influence and the ability to partner. We know the city wants students to get school safely, so there is not a lack of willingness to talk about what's possible,“ Johnson said.
Fewer school buses will be arriving at the district’s four major high schools, Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, Arsenal Tech and George Washington. According to IPS, a total of 605 students from those schools will be required to use IndyGo to get to class. The students chosen will be among those who live closest to an IndyGo bus stop and will only need one city bus to get to high school.
"We have the infrastructure in place when it comes to the number of vehicles. There might be some small tweaking that we will do in order to meet the needs that IPS has for the school, but yeah we can get the job done. Our system allows them the flexibility to go to the library to take on internships, to seek other employment, volunteer experiences the school bus can't get that done," IndyGo President and CEO Inez Evans said.
IPS and IndyGo have been operating under a pilot program that began in the 2019-20 school year and cost the school district $95,000 to $337,500 in 2020 and $580,000 this upcoming fall. That figure is expected to change with the latest announcement as a new contract is being worked on.
Under the pilot program, all 5,677 high school students received a bus pass. Under the new deal, only the students selected to permanently ride IndyGo will get the bus. In the first wave, about 10% of the high school students may be eligible under the new busing program.
"When looking at the big four schools we serve for school some of those routes are at 30 minutes and some are an hour — so we'll work with the school system to determine if they'd like for us to beef those routes up. It doesn't take more buses. It takes buses more frequently,” Evans said.
Both leaders from IPS and IndyGo sat down exclusively to discuss their partnership. IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and IndyGo President and CEO Inez Evans believe their plan benefits families, taxpayers, and the future of both organizations.
Watch the full interview:
"It is absolutely critical to be able to look at a set number of students ride that we can count one to in our system on a daily basis," said Evans
IPS Superintendent Johnson added, “Taxpayers over the last five years have said yes to IndyGo and yes to IPS investment. We are making good on our commitment to our community, our taxpayers saying there is no need to duplicate transit services."
Johnson and Evans are confident in their partnership as the legislature seeks to derail the Purple and Blue Lines which are critical to IndyGo's growth.
Evans pointed out: “The Blue Line number 8 is already at a 15-minute frequency. If the statehouse bill moves forward the infrastructure will be lost — but the frequency of the service will not increase — which is what the Blue Line would have done 15-minute service to every 10-minute service. That's a tremendous blow when we are trying to increase these partnerships.”
Johnson is keeping an eye on the statehouse involvement though it will not change the district’s current plan.
“Let's be smarter with the dollars you entrusted us with the responsibility to use. This is what we are trying to do. Don’t prohibit us from doing the things that will benefit the taxpayers of our community," Johnson said.
On average, IPS transports 17,000 students to 64 schools. The district will continue to use "First Student" to provide services as needed. The expected $18 million budget gap will be addressed in part through the new IndyGo partnership, the enforcement of Walk Zones, a freeze on open positions, and with better than expected property tax revenues.