By a 5-2 vote, the District 146 school board on Thursday voted not to cancel the contract on the bus company that , and, more recently, left students and parents waiting in freezing temperatures because it didn't tell the district a bus wouldn't start.
"Overall, though, has not the service been pretty good?" Illinois Central School Bus Director of Operations Ron Howard asked the school board during the meeting where they discussed whether to cancel the contract.
Illinois Central School Bus is in the first year of its three-year contract.
"I've been here eight years and I don't think in the last seven years we've had this many incidents with the bus company," board President Dean Casper said.
Since the contract was so new, the board was still in the six-month period where it could cancel and not have to pay any money to the company. That expires within the next few days. But the company offered to extend that deal until the end of the school year, essentially asking for a second chance.
"I'm not making excuses for past incidents, but I'm telling you what we can do today to make this better," Howard said.
Now the board can cancel at any time until the end of the school year without penalty. Director of Business Services Mark Schilling said a new bus contract would not be put to bid until that time anyway, essentially giving the board no specific reason to cancel the contract now rather than later.
For some board members, the ability to see if the company improves without any consequences to the district was convincing.
"I came here thinking I was all for canceling (the contract)," board member Donna Framke said.
Board members Framke, Jack Carey, Denis Ryan, Julie Jackson and John Malloy voted against canceling the contract. Casper and board member Amy Connolly voted to cancel it.
No Video During Incidents
After the bullet incident (which turned out to be due to a student who brought them to show his friends), the bus crash and a few other incidents, most notably in the first few weeks of class where a kindergartner was dropped off two blocks from the right stop, the district asked to view security video from inside the bus only to be told there was none.
In total, video wasn't available 6.8 percent of the time the district asked to review it, according to numbers Illinois Central provided the district.
Howard said the 6.8 percent happening to include the biggest incidents the district has faced in the year was "uncanny."
The reasons there was no video varied, said Christine Wiig, a regional sales representative for 247 Security Inc., which provides the cameras for the bus company. There was no video of the bus crash because it happened on a field trip when video is not regularly taken, she said. As for the bullet incident, the hard drive on the digital camera simply froze mid-route.
247 Security Inc. will be installing an upgraded system in the buses no matter if District 146 decided to cancel later on in the school year, Wiig said. The main difference is that the new system will send a wireless signal to a central operator if the cameras aren't working. Currently, only the bus driver is notified if a camera goes out.
However, the new system only notifies the operator of an outage when the bus is in the garage. The wireless signal isn't strong enough to send the signal any farther than that. If the camera goes out mid-route – as happened with the bullet incident – the central operator isn't notified.
The operator would be notified when the bus pulls back into the garage, Wiig said.
Communication a Concern
Board member Amy Connolly was one of the parents left standing in the cold when the company didn't tell the district one of the buses wouldn't start.
She said Illinois Central has a poor track record of communicating with the district and it would not change any time soon.
"I just feel like we have to send a message," Connolly said.
Casper said his concern with the bullet incident was not that a camera had technical difficulties but that the bus company waited nearly 24 hours before telling the district two grade school students found a .44-caliber bullet when they got on the bus to go home on Tuesday, Jan. 25, Casper said.
The students turned it over to the bus driver who, instead of telling teachers inside the school, pulled out from the school and started on the route, Casper said. The bus driver then waited to tell the dispatcher, who then didn't tell the manager until Wednesday morning. The manager had the bus searched, at which point a 9 mm bullet was also found.
The bus company told the district on Wednesday afternoon, by which time the district had heard from the parents of one of the students who found the bullet.
"When a second grader is the one who handled this the best, that's not right," Casper said. "The failures have been colossal failures."