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Despite a problematic year, Unit 5 extends bus contract with First Student

Emma Shores

Despite a year filled with controversy over busing problems, Unit 5 will keep First Student next year.

During its meeting on Wednesday, the Unit 5 school board voted unanimously for the contract, effective through June 2023. It's expected to cost the district about $11 million.

But the one-year extension comes with a caveat: Next fall, the district will put the transportation service contract out for bid.

During negotiations with First Student, Unit 5 officials made clear the district has serious concerns with the bus company's ability to improve service issues, said Joe Adelman, who heads district operations.

First Student has struggled this year to hire and retain drivers. The district’shad issues with families concerned about combined routes and poor communication. Arrival times also have caused problems. At one point last fall, one of every 10 buses brought students to school after the morning bell.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said board member Alan Kalitsky. “The service that we’ve received to this point is not what we expected,” he said, noting the company’s lack of customer service and the delays have caused students to lose valuable education time.

Adelman told the board several factors were considered before proposing the extension, including financial risk management in the current economic climate.

“As we’ve come out of COVID, and we saw inflation and we saw the risks, we thought it would be best to extend one year,” he said.

First Student is adjusting routes for next school year, and has been analyzing data, said Marty Hickman, Unit 5 finance director.

In March 2021, the board OK'd a $10 million contract with First Student.

The 2022-2023 contract brings a 14.2% increase to route charges — one part of the total agreement. Unit 5's peer districts are seeing a similar rise in transportation costs, he said.

Rising overhead costs for First Student — especially with increasing wages — also factored into the double-digit increase for routes, he said.

Currently, Unit 5 runs 122 routes. Previous contracts were based on an average of 135 routes, so now the pricing structure within the contract changed, said Hickman.

First Student Area General Manager Chris Coyle told the board that despite hiring 30 new drivers since January, nearly 50 have left the company in the same period. He said in the post-pandemic period, the industry hasfaced challenges retaining driversas workers with commercial driver’s licenses are in high demand.

Board member Amy Roser told Coyle she knows the hiring issue is a nationwide problem that’s evolved with the pandemic. But she said Unit 5 families’ patience is thin. They might have been more understanding if the district didn’t already have a history of problems with First Student, she said.

In other business, the board:

  • Heard Unit 5 is tripling its summer school enrollment, made possible with federal COVID-relief money. The district is using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.
  • Elected new officers, selecting Barry Hitchins as president; Stan Gozur as vice president; and Kelly Pyle as secretary.
  • Approved May 26 as the final day of school. Pre-K students finish a day earlier. 

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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