Downers Grove’s public high school district is chucking its school bus provider after years of poor service and its two feeder districts are poised to follow suit.
The Community High School District 99 school board recently approved a new three-year contract with First Student, Inc. to provide busing to District 99 until summer 2017. The agreement will sever ties with Westway Coach, which had been operating buses in the district since fall of 2011.
District 99, Grade School District 58 and Woodridge School District 68 have a joint contract with Westway, which expires in June. District 58 and 68 administrators are expected to ask their boards to approve their portions of the new busing agreement on April 28. All three districts worked with First Student just prior to contracting with Westway.
Only First Student and Westway submitted bids. The new deal with First Student is $5.75 million for the next three school years, with the option to extend for two additional years. The board approved the contract even though it is about $41,000 more than the bid submitted by Westway. The joint contract could increase District 99 costs by about $400,000, District 99 Controller Mark Staehlin said.
Staehlin urged the board to accept the new contract, saying officials were fed up with the continual problem of buses not running on time.
“It’s never been this bad,” Staehlin said at the April 21 board meeting. “We have parents who are very tired of poor bus service. We’ve had administrators who have devoted full days to dealing with parents that are irate about busing.”
The move comes hastily after Westway’s parent company unexpectedly opted out of contract negotiations in March. Officials with Cook-Illinois Corporation suggested the district re-bid its busing contract, saying that company could not agree to terms not to raise driver’s wages by more than 1.7 percent in the 2014-2015 school year.
COO John Benish Jr. said in a letter to Staehlin the company has struggled to provide enough drivers to run the routes stipulated in the contract and that boosting wages would help rectify that shortage.
“The current rates are insufficient to attract and retain new drivers, and with a proposed increase which barely covers inflation, we will need to respectfully decline to negotiate for an extension,” Benish wrote March 13.
Lorie Pilster, District 58′s director of business services, agreed that there is a driver shortage but said the 1.7 percent maximum increase is tied to the consumer price index and is an agreed-upon stipulation in the busing contract.
“That’s what our revenue is based on, that’s what our property taxes are based on,” Pilster said. “So if we’re bringing in 1.7 percent we can’t have a busing contract for 4 percent. That takes money away from our education fund, and that’s where we need it the most.”
Benish could not immediately be reached for further comment.
Westway had problems since the beginning of the joint contract among the three districts. During the first days of the 2011-2012 school year, parents complained that buses were picking up and dropping off children sometimes more than an hour late, or failed to pick up students at all. Benish later issued a formal apology. Officials from all corners all blamed the problems on staffing.
The $10.8 million, three-year deal was inked in an effort to save all the districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Officials said operations improved in 2011 and 2012 after that rough start, but Staehlin said service regressed again during the current school year.
“We knew there were shortages, but we didn’t know how bad the shortages were until we got into the winter,” Staehlin said. “There’s some chronic routes that for some kids, some groups that just were not dependable for them. It’s not showing up when they need it to be there.”
Kevin Wegner, District 68 assistant superintendent for business, said problems were occurring every week.
“Because they were understaffed, we had substitute drivers every day that were not familiar with those routes,” Wegner said. “They would make wrong turns and that led to them being late. We have students on buses calling parents because they’re nervous that they’re going to be late for school and they’re going to be in trouble.”
Staehlin added that the bid needed to be brought before the board to ensure proper services are in place by fall.
“We need to approve this contract so they can mobilize,” Staehlin said.
Pilster said they feel confident that First Student is equipped to step in despite the time crunch.
“First Student is a national company so their resources to pull drivers is greater,” Pilster said. “There is a driver shortage, there is no doubt. They just have a larger pool. If they can’t find anyone in our area, they can go north. They can go out of state.”