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Schools’ busing change fails first test

One driver likely fired over ‘very bad decision’

White Oak Elementary School students arrive for the first day of school Tuesday 
morning approximately 30 minutes later than in past years. The delayed start is the 
result of a new agreement for shared busing among Morris Elementary School Dist. 
54, Morris Community High School Dist. 101 and Saratoga District 60C, which owns 
and operates the bus fleet.
White Oak Elementary School students arrive for the first day of school Tuesday morning approximately 30 minutes later than in past years. The delayed start is the result of a new agreement for shared busing among Morris Elementary School Dist. 54, Morris Community High School Dist. 101 and Saratoga District 60C, which owns and operates the bus fleet.

School officials said the first day of school usually results in late buses and minor hiccups, but one major issue Tuesday likely will result in a bus driver losing his job.

“A typical first day of school kids get home late. This was just absolutely compounded,” Superintendent Teri Shaw of Morris Elementary School District 54 said. “Things will be better than [Tuesday]. We ask for patience as we work on the issues. Every kid got home safe, we have to remember that and their safety is our priority.”

On the second day of the new shared busing system, buses were off to a late start again after school, Shaw said. Buses to White Oak were delayed from Shabbona and the high school, and then it took about 45 minutes for students to board the buses due to staff being extra diligent on making sure students were on the correct bus. Shaw said the buses did not leave White Oak until about 4:20 p.m. School was out at 3:35 p.m.

White Oak teachers and administrators volunteered to ride every bus after school Wednesday to make sure all the students were dropped off at the correct stops. Despite the efforts, one bus broke down on the way home. Another bus was sent to pick up the kids, but those children did not make it home until about 5:45 p.m., Shaw said.

“All the kids were taken to the right stops. It was better [Wednesday] and it will be better [today],” she said.

Tuesday was the first day of school for the elementary districts and the first time the new consolidated Morris Community Bus system was used. Under this system, Shabbona Middle School and Morris High students are picked up first and then buses go back for White Oak students. This system uses fewer buses and less labor, saving the districts money.

But during its first run, the new system did not go as smoothly as hoped.

The driver of bus 12, which was carrying about 30 White Oak students in kindergarten through fifth grade, was unsure of where the students’ bus stops were, so the driver made a “very bad decision” and dropped the students off at Goodwill Park, which is on the east side of town, said Saratoga Superintendent Kathy Perry.

Numerous parents have stated to the Morris Daily Herald and in social media comments that the driver may have had a language barrier.

Perry confirmed the driver spoke both English and Spanish, with Spanish being his first language, but could not speculate whether this was the reason for his confusion on where the bus stops were located. The driver had bus experience and drove for Illinois Central School Bus previously, she said.

Perry said the driver should have called into the school or brought the students back to the school, which would have been the safest option for all of the students, but instead decided to drop the kids off in their neighborhood park.

“He displayed a poor lack of judgment,” Shaw said. “They have another driver and a monitor on the bus today to make sure the kids are dropped off where they are supposed to be.”

Action on the bus driver’s position will likely go before the Saratoga school board at its next meeting. He is expected to be dismissed.

Shaw said she was calling every household of the students on bus 12 to apologize and explain to the families how this problem is being addressed.

In addition to the new driver and monitor, bus drivers are talking to parents to verify pickup times and stops. The three superintendents were also looking at the system software and addressing changes.

Both Shaw and Perry said most of the parents they talked with Wednesday were upset, but were understanding once the administrators explained how the issues are being addressed.

Although she expected to see a smaller bus crowd and a bigger drop-off crowd, Shaw said there was not a visible difference at White Oak on Wednesday morning.

‘A horrifying afternoon’

Jen Petersen’s 5-year-old was starting her first day of kindergarten Tuesday, and one of the things she was most excited about was taking the bus.

After her daughter got on the bus at 2:30 p.m., Petersen had to eventually pick her daughter up at school. She left the school with her child at 5 p.m.

“It was a horrifying afternoon. I was scared out of my mind,” she said. “My daughter was one of the few who couldn’t be located after they were all dropped off at the park.”

Petersen’s daughter refused to get off the bus at the park.

“She simply told me she knew she wasn’t supposed to get off there,” Petersen said.

Her daughter and one other student were brought back to the school, she said. After calling the school and talking to police, who were canvasing the neighborhood, she received a call back from the school that her daughter was there.

“I just can’t believe something like this could happen,” Petersen said.

She drove her daughter to school Wednesday and planned to do so the rest of the week. Petersen said the new bus driver and monitor stopped by her home Wednesday morning and she feels better, but wants to wait until next week to put her child on the bus again so they “can figure everything out.”

Un-’Common’ Concerns

The day started with common first-day-of school issues, Shaw said. The buses left Shabbona late due to students learning their bus numbers, so the buses ended up getting to White Oak late. When the buses left White Oak, parents were alerted through the Blackboard alert system.

But in addition, a “handful” of students were on the wrong bus, Perry said.

This was due to Saratoga receiving wrong addresses for these students from Dist. 54, she said.

Parents are asked to verify addresses at preregistration and open registration, Shaw said. But many times preregistration packets are not sent back to the school and some students end up not getting registered before school.

“It’s really important parents contact us if there is an address change,” she said.

Lisa Davison’s 9- and 8-year-old kids were two of those students on the wrong bus. But she’s lived at her current address for years and verified the school had the right address during orientation.

“They were supposed to be on bus 12, but were put on bus 13 and routed to an old address we have not lived at in three years,” Davison said. “My children were not back until 5 p.m.”

At first she said she thought her children were taken to Goodwill Park like the other neighborhood kids, so she wasn’t worried. But they weren’t there, so she thought they were still on the bus and the driver was taking another ride around. But then one of her neighbor’s 5-year-old was missing and the police were called.

Davison made a couple of calls to Saratoga before she got someone on the phone to find her kids. She was ultimately called and told her kids would be to her in 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, she received another call saying it would be another 20 minutes.

Eventually a Grundy County Sheriff’s Deputy got on the radio and said he wanted the kids and he wanted them now, Davison said. The bus pulled up shortly with police cars in tow.

“They were on the bus for two hours; as soon as they saw me, they were in tears,” she said.

The Davison children did not take the bus Wednesday.

“They did all of this to save tax dollars, but how much tax dollars were wasted because the police department, Grundy County and fire department were out looking for kids?” Davison asked.

Morris police Chief Brent Dite said the police, with assistance from the Grundy County Sheriff’s Department and the Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District, worked with the schools to ensure the safety of the students during the Goodwill Park incident.

No one was arrested nor issued a citation, Dite said.

“The police officers were immediately in contact with the Saratoga School and through them were able to identify the affected schoolchildren from White Oak,” he said. “Both locations diligently made calls to parents to verify the kids on the wrong buses were safe.”

In the police report, Dite said a parent made an allegation that the driver was driving erratically, but no one was cited nor arrested.

A separate informational complaint was reported to police regarding a different bus driver that was being investigated, but was closed without any charges being filed.

High school Superintendent Dr. Pat Halloran said the busing on the high school side had some minor issues that were expected with a new bus system, but no major incidents.

Morris Elementary, Morris Community High School District 101 and Saratoga School District 60C decided last spring to share bus service. Previously, all three schools shared special education transportation, and the high school and Morris Elementary shared regular busing through Illinois Central School Bus.

Saratoga leases its own fleet, the high school and Morris Elementary will now see significant savings by using Saratoga as a provider. Previously it was reported Dist. 54 will save $165,000, Dist. 101 will save $150,000, and Dist. 60C will save $90,000. In addition, the new system is supposed to fine-tune the routes.

To accommodate all of the schools, start times had to change for all the schools. White Oak Elementary School students start school about a half hour later than Shabbona and Morris high.

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