With a final word of encouragement from his mother, Jan Wood, J.J. Bowers, an eight-year old third-grader, boards the number 431 bus. (Photo by Jym Wilson)


Second in a series of in-depth reports on key issues facing Springfield Public Schools and on candidates seeking school board seats in the April 4 election.

Jan Wood’s alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. to make sure her son J.J. is ready to get on the school bus about an hour later, but the early mornings haven’t been the challenging part. It’s the mid-afternoons, she said. 

J.J., a third grader at Mann Elementary, has special needs, and Wood said an adult needs to accompany him to and from the bus when he uses it. Wood, a single mother, is there with him every morning. But her remote job as a corporate trainer has often left her searching for someone to get her son after the first of three tiers of Springfield Public Schools lets out at 2:30 p.m. 

“And it’s just this weird juggling act, because with my job, I can’t just say, ‘Oh, I need to leave early,’” Wood said. “You can’t end a seminar early when there are 100 people in there.”

She’s paid neighbors in her Battlefield apartment complex $20 to get J.J., or she’s asked her sister to brave the student pickup car line at Mann. 

“You know, stuff like that, it’s extremely stressful,” said Wood, who has looked into the possibility of moving to a neighboring district or enrolling J.J. in private school next year. 

J.J. with his mother, Jan Wood, while waiting for the school bus. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Wood is among many Springfield parents who have expressed frustration with the three-tiered system, which was put in place at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. District surveys of parents, guardians and staff over the past two years found that transportation and start times are among the top frustrations many have. This is particularly problematic to parents who choose or need to chauffeur their kids to and from school rather than use the bus system, which is the vast majority of SPS parents. 

Start times went from two to three tiers that year in an effort to expand bus access to thousands more students across the district.

“It is great that more busing is offered, but school getting out at 4:30 is too late,” a parent wrote at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. “It makes an incredibly long day for my kid.”

“I have one freshman who needs to be at school at 7:30,” another parent wrote then. “Another student needs to arrive by 9:30. I work at 8:30. We are not eligible for bus service.”

This school year, the district was able to trim the gap between start times from an hour to 50 minutes. SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who joined the district after the tier decision was made, has said she would condense start times more if she could waive a wand and do it. But because of workforce shortage issues that haven’t spared the district’s transportation department, the three tiers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon despite parent concerns.

It’s an issue that the four candidates for two SPS Board of Education seats in the April 4 election have thoughts on.

Shurita Thomas-Tate at a Springfield Public Schools Board of Education in April, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Current board member and candidate Shurita Thomas-Tate said the decision to expand the tier system was a long time coming for the district, and provided much-needed transportation accessibility for a district whose high school and magnet students were lacking it. 

“The reason for that is to increase the number of students who can participate in a ridership,” she said. “It’s not just that we were randomly trying to do more tiers. Then, when we adopted the tier system and we’re in the middle of this pandemic, and we had a shortage of bus drivers, that put things to a problem. However, the three-tier model is still more efficient. And so we could not go back to a two-tier model, because it still required more drivers.”

“Getting back to a two-tier transportation system is, in my opinion, it’s important to the community,” candidate Landon McCarter said. “I do believe that that’s something I want to try and shoot for. I’m sure there’s logistical issues with that.”

Candidate Chad Rollins said the tiered system has actually benefited his family, but that’s because he and his wife drop them off and pick them up themselves. Five of his children currently attend SPS schools, and he said their multiple start times beat trying to wake up five kids at the same time and get them ready for school all at once. But his experience, he said, isn’t a universal one. 

“I will tell you, I get a lot of parents reaching out to me, especially single mothers, that are wanting to see a different solution,” Rollins said. “And you know, it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to talk to everybody involved and try and come up with the best solution for everybody.”

“It’s a puzzle that has to be put together,” said Judy Brunner. “And it’s a complicated one. But people’s voices have been heard loudly and clearly. And there are great minds trying to figure this out, truly.”

Staffing shortage means tiered system to be in place unless 30-plus drivers join the district

A Springfield Public School bus during evening traffic on National Ave. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“Really, the No. 1 factor is staffing,” said John Mulford, SPS deputy superintendent. “I mean, that’s what it boils down to.”

The district currently runs 108 bus routes over three tiers of start and end times. As of Feb. 27, there were 109 active bus drivers employed by the district, and another seven hopefuls going through the hiring process Mulford said. That’s below the ideal amount for the current setup, let alone a return to a two-tier system, he said. The district seeks to have a 10-percent cushion of drivers to routes — or 119 with the current setup of routes. 

“If you’re going to reduce tiers, in order to do that, you have to have more people to drive and more buses,” he said. “Now, we already have the buses because we had a two-tier system previously. What we don’t have is the drivers, and we’ve heard from board members that they want us to work towards returning to a two-tier. We’ve heard from our superintendent that she wants to work towards returning to a two-tier. But in order to accomplish that, we have to be able to hire about 30 more drivers. This year we’ve been unsuccessful in making progress towards that.”

Drive past many Springfield schools and you’ll see a banner outside encouraging bus drivers to apply, advertising a starting wage of $20 an hour, full-time benefits even for part-time workers, a $2,000 signing bonus and CDL training. But numerous factors have left SPS short on drivers, Mulford said, including one 1.3-million square foot one that opened in Republic in August of 2021. 

“It’s not just drivers,” Mulford said. “Everybody’s dealing with employee shortages. And so until something changes in the job market, this will likely continue. Second thing that we have to recognize is, it’s a great thing for our community that Amazon came to town a few years back. But one thing that we know is across the country, wherever an Amazon (warehouse) comes in, school districts have struggled to hire drivers.

J.J. hands his cell phone to his mother before boarding the school bus. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“As we’ve been dealing with the driver shortage, we’ve reached out to multiple, contracted bus service (providers). The first question they’ve asked: ‘Since your shortage has started, has anything changed like an Amazon plant coming in?’ That is what they ask. We’ll be like, ‘Well, as a matter of fact…’ It’s (an issue) across the country, because Amazon also competes for drivers right and often they’ve paid better than what the school (district) does.”

To get back to the two-tiered system with the eligibility requirements that previously existed, the district would need to have 132 routes, and 145 drivers to account for the 10-percent cushion. That’s 36 more drivers than they have ready to go right now.

But the district’s three-tier start time system was initially put in place for the 2021-2022 in an effort to significantly expand bus eligibility to more students. A 2020-2021 transportation access workgroup report shows that, among Missouri’s largest school districts, Springfield R-XII was an anomaly, both in terms of tiers and access for high school and magnet program students. 

John Mulford is the deputy superintendent at SPS. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“When you look at a district the size of Springfield, or any district in Missouri that is close to the size of Springfield, almost every one of them have a three-tier system,” Mulford said. “Some even have a four-tier system.” (North Kansas City has five tiers.) 

Springfield and other large school district transportation departments tend to determine who gets the option of a bus ride by drawing a zone around each school, and offering service to anyone who falls outside the “walk zone.” Springfield’s high school walk zones was, according to a study of the district’s transportation system, “by far the most restrictive high school eligibility distance” in the state. If a high school student lived 3.5 miles or closer to the high school, they had to figure out another way to get to class than the school bus.”

“The distance that we served was significantly smaller than peer and regional districts,” Thomas-Tate said. “And also the number of students we served was significantly smaller because of that limited distance.”

Nearly 72 percent of SPS high school students didn’t have bus access in the years before the workgroup met to examine the situation, and the report showed high school students who were ineligible for bus service missed classes more often than those who weren’t.  

Empty Classrooms at Robberson Elementary. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Two school board candidates — Brunner and Thomas-Tate — served on the 43-member workgroup, which supported efforts to shrink the high school walk zone from 3.5 to 1.5 miles and to offer bus access to magnet school students. The group supported a recommendation to implement a three-tiered system as part of an effort to keep costs of expanded service below $1.5 million. To provide that increased access and remain in a two-tiered system, the district would have had to spend between $3.9-$5.4 million annually on additional buses and staffing, according to the transportation study.  

And that estimate was given before the bus driver shortage grew so significant that the district temporarily cut service to 1,500 students in the fall of 2021 and ramped starting pay from $14.51 an hour to $20 in December of 2021. 

“The system worked well for the families that it worked well for, but in order to expand it, we had to make it work well for not just the ones who were already utilizing it,” Thomas-Tate said. “And that is discomforting. It’s hard for change when you have had the exact same system for a very long time. But we’ve grown significantly since then, and we have to change. And part of that change was a three-tier system.”

Brunner said there was serious consideration given to efforts to remain a two-tier district, but the financially feasible options to expand access required an additional tier of start times. Brunner, a retired SPS principal and administrator, said expanding service was necessary to give more students the best chance at academic success.  

“I was the principal at Central at the time, and certainly the community I was working in was directly impacted by the distance that a student had to live from the school to get transportation,” Brunner said. “I will tell you, I’ve seen kids arrive in school, soaking wet, from walking in the rain, or just in some adverse conditions.”

She added: “Kids need to arrive at school ready to learn, and kids need to arrive to school safe.” 

J.J., an eight-year-old third-grader, talks with his mother, Jan Wood. With them is their dog “Tiny.” (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Thomas-Tate has praised district officials for a decision they made on a choice they couldn’t avoid due to the growing bus driver shortage. It had to roll back services. The transportation team had to make a call on whether to eliminate bus access for SPS early childhood centers or for the district’s magnet programs, like the Ag Academy and the Academy of Fine and Performing Arts. They kept access for students to attend magnet programs. 

The decision to expand service was not without critics, including two current board members who were running for election in 2021 — Maryam Mohammadkhani and Kelly Byrne. Mohammadkhani called it a “transportation debacle” in an interview with the Springfield News-Leader and Byrne, who got elected a year later, said he wanted to join the board to work with administrators on “outside the box” solutions to expand access but not the tiered system. Byrne wasn’t elected that year, but joined the board in April 2022. The three-tier system remains in place, and it isn’t expected to go away next school year. 

Springfield Public School Board of Education members Kelly Byrne, left, and Danielle Kincaid, and school superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan at a recent board meeting. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Thomas-Tate said the reality of being a board member is that you don’t know what you don’t know about the full scale of district operations until you’ve joined the board. A board member, in Thomas-Tate’s view, can only promise to oversee the district’s superintendent, make sure the superintendent is listening to public feedback about the district’s performance and decisions and make sure taxpayer funds are being used properly by the district.

“Other than that, we can’t really make any promises, in my opinion,” she said. “The promises can’t be made because we are not individual board members with authority and power. We are a collective board with power and authority. And so I can’t make any promises to the community other than I’m going to support this district and make sure that the district has what it needs to be successful, and that we are making sure that the superintendent is supported so that she can do her job.”

Meet the candidates for springfield school board

Three-tiered system designed to provide more equitable access

Mulford said about 70 percent of SPS families provide transportation for their students, and he said he can understand why many of those families may look past the transportation needs of the other 30 percent and focus on their views of start and end times. But he said it’s a factor the district must consider in its decisions surrounding the tier system. Ensuring equitable access to opportunities for all students to maximize educational impact is a part of the strategic plan the current board supported in a 7-0 vote. 

SPS bus drivers log over 2 million miles during a typical school year, according to a recent transportation assessment. That averages out to roughly 11,630 miles per day over a 172-day school year. The district estimates it’s closer to 10,000 a day, with school trips and events accounting for many extra miles. Still, it’s an economy of scale that means every effort to chip away at the three-tier system requires heavy lifting.

During an April 2022 school board meeting, Mulford provided the board with an update on an effort that eventually trimmed the gap between start times from an hour to 50 minutes for the 2022-2023 school year. And to shrink the gap between start times while navigating the bus driver shortage, the district had to roll back the parameters for bus ride eligibility for some students. Eligibility for high schoolers, for example, got bumped up to 2.5 miles instead of 1.5.

The transportation staff had been shooting to get it down to 45 minutes between bus runs. But that five-minute difference, Mulford said, would require an additional 13 bus drivers the district didn’t have. 

McCarter, co-founder of Secure Agent Marketing, said during a February conversation with the Daily Citizen that his entrepreneurial skills would benefit him in trying to tackle the driver shortage issue. But that doesn’t mean it could be addressed with a “click of a button.”

Landon McCarter. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“Ultimately, the reality is the reality,” he said. “We can’t have a two-tier system if you don’t have the drivers to do it.”

If elected, he said, the first thing he would do to address the busing situation would be to talk with experienced district drivers. 

“Tell me what’s changed,” he said. “What’s going on? How can we help you guys be supported?”

McCarter said he would guess that people aren’t applying to be bus drivers “because of compensation, or, most likely, it’s the crap they have to deal with with the students that are on the actual bus.” He said that if there are discipline challenges in the classroom, there are likely discipline challenges on bus routes as well. 

Rollins said he, McCarter and others have had preliminary conversations about two possible changes to explore — setting up busing hubs at campuses in different parts of Springfield and busing multiple age groups of students on the same bus. He said it’s the board’s job to listen to people’s concerns, and then to seek out experts to address what can or can’t be done to resolve them.  

Mulford said the transportation department staff runs through numerous scenarios to best run the massive operation. The number of routes evolves through the school year along with the number of riders and the number of drivers. They’ve looked at the prospect of grouping more age groups together on bus routes, Mulford said, and “what we landed on is it really didn’t help us with any efficiency.” 

“If you have elementary, middle school kids on the same bus or middle school and high school kids, while you might be able to add more students at one stop — siblings may be getting on together — you’ve also added multiple stops for that driver,” he said. “So they have to take some kids to middle school, and then hold others on and take them to high school. Well, then you flip that around at the end of the day, they have to spend time loading at one school, then drive to the other, and load at that school. So it actually in some cases added to the length of time between tiers instead of creating efficiencies.” 

And that’s before you consider the safety concerns it could create, which the head of the bus drivers union said was at the forefront of his mind. 

“As far as the children all riding the bus together, I feel like that is a horrible idea,” said Jeremy Manley, president of Teamsters Local 245, which represents the district’s bus drivers and bus monitors. “And the reason being is, if I have a kindergartener, which I will next year, I don’t want him riding the bus with a 15-year-old boy. I don’t feel like that’s safe, or responsible, for the school system to do.”

Plus, he added, there’s an even greater shortage of bus monitors than there is of bus drivers. 

“It’s a very large ship that we’re steering here, and you can’t just turn it around and say, let’s go back the other way,” Thomas-Tate said. “And so, the district has made efforts to adjust as best as possible. And that’s where we are. I do hear parents who are vocal about their displeasure with this particular system, but they represent a segment of the district. They don’t represent all of the voices in the district. And while it is a difficult change, we had to make the change. We were way behind the change. It was overdue change that had to happen.”

Brunner said any reasonable idea should be on the table to address the driver shortage and ease the burdens on families. 

“To make a major change like that, a lot of people need to be at the table, helping to solve the problem,” Brunner said. “What I know from past experience is, that almost any decision you make, some will like it and some will not.

“There’s just a lot at stake for the kids to be transported to and from school safely. And we’ve made some progress in terms of bus driver salaries and things to entice people to come in. But I will tell you that that’s a hard job. And so no one should take a bus driver for granted. Those people work really hard. And they do their very best.”

Brunner and Thomas-Tate earned endorsements from the Teamsters union, Manley said, based in part on their backgrounds on education and pro-labor views regarding collective bargaining.

“Basically, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, you know?” he said.  

Manley said the biggest issue is wages, but added that it’s not as simple as ratcheting up the hourly rate to drive a school bus because many drivers are retirees. 

“Some of these bus drivers in order to keep their Social Security has to make under a certain threshold,” he said. “So you can’t have them making 50 bucks an hour, or they can only work three hours a day. That’s a legitimate struggle as far as the district goes, which I get.” 

But, he said that as the largest district in the state, SPS “should be setting the bar.” 

He commended Travis Shaw, current executive director of operations at SPS, who this summer will move into Mulford’s deputy superintendent role following Mulford’s announced retirement. 

“He’s a good guy,” Manley said. “He really is. He personally takes the time and sits and listens and talks to these drivers and knows the situations.”

And he encouraged all the school board candidates to follow suit. 

“Why not have a forum with the school bus drivers that are actually running the routes and basically delivering these children every day?” Manley said. “These people are sent out every day with 20, 25 riders that are children (that are) talking and laughing and dropping stuff and all while they’re trying to do the job that we do by driving to work every day. That deserves some respect and an adequate pay as well.”

‘I’ve thought about a lot of ways to make it work,’ parent says

J.J. and his mother, Jan Wood. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

In January, during a presentation at an SPS University event about the schools that would be transformed if voters pass Proposition S next month, Wood, J.J.’s mother, raised her hand and asked why none of that money could be put toward reducing the three-tier system back to two. Parents in the Hillcrest High School auditorium applauded her question.  

Bond funds must be tied to capital improvement projects, so that money can’t fund, say, raises. Lathan, the SPS superintendent, said she’s continuing to direct staff to work toward a return to the two-tier system. But she said it wouldn’t happen next year. Wood, in an interview later with the Daily Citizen, said that could play a factor in where J.J. goes to fourth grade.  

Right now, things are going OK, Wood said. A few weeks ago, a spot opened up for J.J. in a church after-school care program. A staffer picks him and other Mann students up from the school and buses them to the church. It costs Wood $260 a month, but she says it’s worth it given the other unsteady options. 

She said she’d prefer not to move out of her reasonably priced Battlefield apartment to enroll him in another district. But her lease is up in August, so it’s a possibility that is on the table. 

“I’ve thought about a lot of ways to make it work,” Wood said. “I mean, the whole thing is that our country doesn’t value education that much. It’s sad.” 

RELATED in-depth report

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson