H-F board rejects school bus contract renewal

Homewood-Flossmoor High School District 233 school board rejected a bid from Kickert Bus Co. for the coming year because the company asked for a 6.25% increase which is more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase. 

The board vote was 6-0, with member Nathan Legardy absent, to reject the $2,687,933 bid that was recommended by Superintendent Scott Wakeley and Business Manager Lawrence Cook. The board expects to go out for bids on bus service and discussed breaking the contract into pieces to attract more competition. The bus contract was last bid in 2019 and was won by Kickert.

H-F has used Kickert Bus Co. for the needs of student transportation to school, to sports games and for field trips, as well as transportation for special education students. 

At the Tuesday, April 16, meeting, the board paid $184,200 for transportation needs over a month’s time. The Kickert bill covered $121,853 for student pick-up and drop-off, and $27,234 for 66 special runs for athletics activities, field trips for industrial technology, science and physical education and for special education student needs.

In his memo to the board, Cook told board members: “As in recent prior years, due to a transportation market with few competitors with similar needs and operation costs, the Business Office is apprehensive to bid out the transportation contract. There is a very strong possibility that the district would return bids at higher rates with equal to poorer services.” 

But Finance Committee Chair Steve Anderson said accepting the increase means District 233 “is taking money away from kids.” He argued the district has gone above and beyond in its support of Kickert. During the pandemic, H-F provided 37% of Kickert’s annual revenue in 2020-21, even though students were on a remote schedule. When schools reopened, many bus drivers didn’t return to their jobs and bus companies increased wages as they scrambled to get the workforce back to sufficient staffing.

For the 2022 contract, Kickert got a 12.5% increase that it pledged to use to raise bus driver salaries. In 2023, Kickert asked for a 10% increase. Anderson argued the company was told last April that its next contract should stay within CPI guidelines. CPI rose 3.5% between March 2023 and March 2024. 

 Bus drivers now earn $24 an hour, and Kickert said the union contract will be renegotiated next year. The company also cited increased fuel and insurance costs. Kickert’s initial proposal for 2024-25 to the Finance Committee April 9 was for a two-year contract with a 7% increase in year one and a 5.5% increase in year two with an option for a third year contract extension. It was then that Anderson told Kickert representatives the bid was too high. Kickert reduced the proposed increase to 6.25% on a one year contract.

There were concerns about poor service and late buses last year, but Kickert was reported to have much better service this school year. Kickert representative Jeffrey Barnes, director of operations, told the Finance Committee that the company has a full roster of bus drivers and now has substitute drivers who can cover routes when someone is out.

Member Pam Jackson says service has improved “but we took it on the chin with that increase last year.” At the same time, she’s concerned about a decline in service if the district changes providers. Wakeley said the board will be obliged to take the lowest responsible bidder based on its ability to meet H-F’s needs. 

“My concern is we make sure we get a responsible bid from a responsible bidder,” Wakeley said, adding: “I just want to make sure we’re not painting ourselves into a corner if we’re going to do such a thing.”

Member Michelle Hoereth, who previously served on the Flossmoor District 161 board, said problems with buses are a constant, whether a small district or a large district with lots of extra needs for transportation.

 “Kickert is not an anomaly,” she said.

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