Bus service in Flossmoor District 161 has shown improvements from the 2017-18 school year when issues like numerous route changes at Western Avenue Elementary and late buses sparked complaints from parents.
Superintendent Dana Smith told the school board Oct. 29, that Paige Bus Enterprises has made changes in its operations that led to a “dramatic decrease in complaints.”
“We had a rough start last year — frankly, an unacceptable start last year — that continued for part of the year, but then we did turn the corner,” Smith said.
He added that he has also seen a “dramatic increase in the number of school buses that are on time.”
“Especially as we’re moving into winter, that’s what’s important,” Smith said. “We have to take those kids off the corners, get them into the bus and off to school before it gets too cold.”
Jeff Barnes, director of operations for the south region of Cook-Illinois Corporation, the parent company of Paige Bus Enterprises, said these changes included hiring a new operations manager and increasing the day-to-day oversight of bus drivers.
For example, new drivers ride their routes for five days before taking over to familiarize themselves with stops and students. A few days are also set aside before new students ride the bus to ensure routes are right.
“We’re not perfect yet,” Barnes said. “We certainly still have some pitfalls every now and then, but we still are pushing every day, making staff changes if necessary.”
Smith asked for feedback from the board on whether to extend the district’s contract with the company for two years or go out to bid for a new contract. The company’s contract would increase by an estimated 20 percent over that time, which is in line with what other suburban school districts are paying for bus service, Smith said.
Associate Superintendent for Business Frances LaBella said the 20 percent increase is mainly occurring because the Cook-Illinois Corporation is raising starting pay for drivers from $12 to $15 per hour in effort to keep consistent staff.
The additional cost to the district would be about $400,000 over the two years, she said.
Smith said it would be possible to save that amount of money or more if routes were consolidated from 52 percent to 72 percent capacity. However, school start times would have to be adjusted, which can create problems with parent and student schedules.
“If we had another 20- to 30-minute distance between the time Parker (Junior High) starts and when the elementary schools start, we could decrease the number of routes because we would have kids on the bus for 30 to 45 minutes as opposed to (having) to get them on and off in 20,” he said.