Education, Local News

H-F wants to tie better service to Kickert contract increase

Kickert School Bus wants to keep its contract with Homewood-Flossmoor High School and is willing to put penalty clauses in its contract renewal.

Tom O’Sullivan of Cook Illinois, the parent company of Kickert School Bus, said the company has been regrouping since March 2020 when schools such down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a year later many bus drivers didn’t return to their jobs. He said he recognizes the level of service is not what clients expect and said the company is good with putting a penalty clause in writing to show its willingness to work with District 233 on a pledge that service will improve.

O’Sullivan made the penalty clause proposal after he proposed a 10% increase in fees for the 2023-24 school year. Previous contracts have had penalty clauses, according to Lawrence Cook, District 233 chief school business official. Cook said last year the school board agreed to a 12.5% increase in Kickert costs, which seemed low in comparison to other districts’ costs that jumped as much as 50%.

District 233 has a five-year contract with Kickert. Its original two-year contract has the option for three yearly contract extensions. H-F is negotiating an extension and is obliged to give Kickert a 5% increase. Under state law, contracts can increase by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is less. 

O’Sullivan said the bus company is asking for additional revenue to help meet its inflationary costs. CPI was 7% last year and that’s been felt in Kickert’s expenses: purchasing a new bus that 18 months ago cost $95,000 today costs $120,000; starting salary for a bus driver is going up from $20 to $24 in an effort to be competitive and get and keep good staff; fuel is up 20% to 25%.

Members of the District 233 Finance Committee pushed back at the April 25 meeting with O’Sullivan saying they recognize expenses are up, but whatever increase the school board agrees to has to mean H-F gets better service.

Board member Steve Andreson complained: “In 2020 it was the most important thing, to be a good partner and here we are on the other side of COVID and we need your bus service and we know if we bid it out we may not get better service. We need to make sure our kids get to school on time.”

District 233 paid 37% of its contract costs to Kickert in 2020-21, even though students were learning remote. O’Sullivan said the company is “very thankful for that and it did keep us in business. We’re extremely thankful for that.”

O’Sullivan said Kickert is making improvements in its operations that should help with the service issues. It is automating its dispatch system that has been a paper-and-pencil operation. All routes will be computerized and all buses have GPS, so Kickert knows where buses are at all times.  He said communication should be better.

The bus company has lost a few customers, but O’Sullivan said that means it will have more bus drivers available for existing customers, such as H-F, to fill in as substitutes on a route.

Committee members Gerald Pauling and Pam Jackson joined Anderson in his complaints about service, but the three Finance Committee members said they would be willing to work with Kickert if the contract included performance-based penalties.

“We have limited resources and we’re not unfamiliar with the challenges everyone if facing. Give us some scenarios to look at.”

The board is expected to approve a Kickert School Bus contract at the May 16 meeting.

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