A small but vocal group of concerned parents, grandparents and teachers attended a forum at Chute Middle School on March 12 to address growing concerns about the bus service provided to students attending District 65 schools.
Paul Goren, District 65 superintendent; Mary Brown, the District’s assistant superintendent of business services; and Roger Allen, the District’s transportation manager, along with the general manager, and three other representatives from Positive Connections – the bus company under contract with the District – discussed the issues that are affecting many of the 189 routes that take students to and from school each day. The main problem: a shortage of drivers.
This is the fifth year with Positive Connections, said Dr. Goren in his opening remarks, and this “has not been our best year of the five.” Driver shortages and bad weather have caused buses to be chronically late or in some cases, not show up at all. “We are troubled” by the bus service, he said, and while the District is “working hand-in-glove with Positive Connections” to address problems, “we are still concerned.”
Aaron Halcomb, general manager of Student Transportation of American, of which Positive Connections is a part, said the company is “equally concerned” with the current level of service. He said since the economy began improving, the company has had difficulty filling driver positions – which are all part-time – because more and more workers are finding full-time employment. Despite the fact that the company “never stops hiring” throughout the year, pays a “better wage” than their competitors and offers a “$1,000 hiring bonus”, said Mr. Halcomb, Positive Connections found itself in a “driver deficit at the beginning of the year.” He added, “Only now is every route covered with a permanent driver. Now we need to work on building a bench of substitute drivers.”
Mr. Halcomb also stressed that the company does not hire just anyone. It goes “above what the law requires”, insisting that applicants not only pass the required physical exam, but also that they have no criminal background and no DUIs on their driving record. “We are not going to cut corners on drivers,” he said.
Other Concerns Raised
Aside from buses being chronically late or absent for morning and afternoon routes, attendees pointed to other concerns as well. Katelyn Varhely shared with the panel a list of issues raised on a Facebook page she created called “District 65 Bus Riders.” On the list were posts describing issues with bullying or other behavior problems, the length of time some kids spend riding to and from school each day, poor communication and lack of transparency about bus delays, and the lack of a method for tracking the whereabouts of buses. Several people asked why there are no longer bus aides riding along on the routes.
No other districts routinely use bus aides, said Dr. Brown. “We have added them here and there” but we “try to manage behavior proactively.” Drivers are to report problems with riders to school principals. Assigned seating has often helped. Video cameras are on all buses. Currently “robo calls” go out when possible to alert those waiting for buses about delays.
The panel also talked about a GPS system currently in the works to allow families to monitor exact bus location.
Dr. Goren spoke of ways the District, too, can take more control of the bus situation. He said he ordered a “deep dive” into current District practices to see if there are ways routes can be more efficient. For example, some areas of the District receive bus service because they have been said to have higher concentrations of car traffic, which makes walking to school more dangerous. That assessment may or may not still be accurate, he said, because some of those determinations were made as long as 10 years ago.
The District is also looking at ways to reduce the number of stops per route, possibly by creating “hubs” where more riders would meet the bus. These hubs could also serve as indoor warming facilities, making it safer for bus riders in colder weather. That would “knock out two birds with one stone,” said Dr. Goren, and “make me feel more confident in leaving school open” in extreme cold.
Making the bus driver position a full-time job could also help. Some of the District’s part-time employees, such as lunch supervisors, before- and after-school care providers and others could be trained as bus drivers, combining multiple roles into a more attractive full-time position that pays more and offers greater benefits, Dr. Goren said. This would increase the number of drivers available and, as some of the forum participants mentioned, could reduce problems on the bus because the employees would be more familiar with the students.
Dr. Goren concluded the hour-and-a-half discussion by thanking everyone who came. “Every concern is an important one. I want to hear from you. This situation will only get better with everyone’s input.”