Parents of students from Morris’ three public school districts came with questions from bus stop locations to emergency plans during Thursday’s transportation open house.
The open house was hosted at Morris Community High School where administrators from Morris High School District 101, Morris Elementary School District 54 and Saratoga School 60C, as well as transportation staff, answered busing questions.
The open house came after the new shared busing system among the three districts had a rocky start.
Under the new system approved by all three school districts, 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. Saratoga runs the buses, the drivers and the dispatch system.
Throughout the first two weeks, buses have continued to be late picking up mostly White Oak students, but it has gradually gotten better, said Superintendent Teri Shaw.
The largest problem was after the first day of elementary school, the driver of bus 12 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.
District officials said this driver made a bad decision, but in the end all of the children were returned home safely. That driver is no longer driving and Saratoga is holding a special meeting Tuesday where the school board will handle his discipline and hire more drivers.
This situation, compacted with other busing issues, has had the community in somewhat of an uproar.
About 60 people attended the open house Thursday. Some just to clarify what time their child’s bus is supposed to pick them up and where, others to address the more controversial concerns.
Samantha Lindemuth has children at Shabbona Middle School and one at White Oak Elementary School.
“My students ride bus 12 and since the first day of school we have had nothing but issues,” she said.
Her biggest concern was what the emergency plan is if all the schools had to be evacuated at the same time, such as for bad weather. The districts have emailed out to the parents that their plan has been approved by the state, but not what the plan is, she said.
The districts do have a plan in place, Saratoga Superintendent Kathy Perry said, but there are not enough buses for all the schools. The state is aware of this and said most districts do not have enough buses, which is why the plan must include maximizing the amount of students on the bus, utilizing all drivers and additional staff if necessary. This follows the directions given by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, she said.
The districts are currently short of drivers due to one quitting this week and drivers that they had as back-ups no longer being available due to taking other jobs, Perry said.
The schools had a list of back-up drivers, most who worked for the schools’ previous company Illinois Central School Bus. The back up drivers were so they could see how exactly the routes would run once school started and how many more drivers would be needed. They need five more, which are being approved by the school board during Tuesday’ s special meeting. But they have an extensive training process to go through before driving.
In the meantime, subs are being used with bus monitors to assist them, said Perry.
To Lindemuth, this is not being prepared for an emergency.
“If there was a flood on Monday, there are not enough bus drivers. It will be staggering,” she said.
Fellow mother Nicole Murphy said she would feel better if the schools ran through a drill with the buses and the students to see how an emergency would pan out.
Lindemuth’s second concern was that her son told her he was getting out of school 20 minutes early because he is a bus rider.
Superintendent Teri Shaw said students are currently being let out 5 minutes early as they smooth out the busing system and try to get kids home on a tighter schedule. During the first week some were let out 15 minutes early as the districts addressed early bus issues. But now it is down to 5 minutes and by next week students will all be in school through the last bell.
“We’ve had a lot of good conversations with people who had really helpful suggestions,” Shaw said. “We felt we had an opportunity to explain what happened and that’s important, to keep an open dialog.”
The largest concerns she heard were timing issues on getting kids picked up and dropped off. Which will all smooth out with time, she said. The shared busing is brand new for the schools and some issues were expected.
“The common theme was that the schools need to do a better job of communicating,” continued Shaw.
By having the open house and making a Morris Community Schools Shared Services question and answer sheet that was passed out and will be available on the schools’ websites, they are making an effort to do this.
After their individual meetings with administrators and staff, some parents left feeling they were heard, but others want more.
“Actions speak louder than words so we’ll see,” said Lisa Davison whose 9-and-8-year-old kids were put on the wrong bus on the first day of school and did not get home until 5 p.m.
The busing service had the wrong address for her family, which turned out to be because of a glitch between District 54’s software and the bus systems.
She attempted to put her kids back on the bus today, but due to pick-up times still varying, her kids missed it, she said.
For more information on the busing system call your student’s district office.