The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 may be looking to outsource some busing
By Seth Hancock
Members of the School District U-46 bus driver’s union came to the most recent Board of Education meeting to excoriate profit making while extolling its own virtue on Monday, Dec. 12.
At question is the possibility of the district outsourcing part of its transportation services, approximately half including special needs transportation, as District U-46 Transportation Union (DUTU) members, including from the union’s president Heather Weiss, claimed seeking profit leads to poor service.
Weiss said companies “cannot replace the dedication and professionalism that your current transportation department provides every day” and said outsourcing would put students “in the hands of outsiders.”
The concerns raised by the union may be debated as The Examiner reached out to First Student, the nation’s largest school transportation company, to get its take.
Todd Steele, First Student’s vice president of business development and growth, as well as Chris Kemper, director of external communications, said that on average First Student hires 95 percent of the staff from districts that outsource with them after those staff members go through a strict background check.
“We typically offer every single employee the opportunity to come over,” said Steele who noted current drivers know the routes.
Kemper said First Student’s motto is “if we can’t do it safely, don’t do it.”
Members of DUTU claimed simply seeking bids for potential outsourcing may violate state law and used personal tragedy to push its agenda.
Tanya Johnson, a DUTU bus driver, said “as a parent, safety is supposed to be the most important factor when transporting our kids” and then brought up a recent bus accident in Tennessee by a Durham School Services bus citing the “Chattanooga incident that took those babies lives.”
“If safety is an issue, we really need to consider U-46,” Johnson said. “Our track record speaks numbers, volumes, over those companies.”
Cathy Wyzykowski, who works for DUTU, claimed U-46 may be in violation of Illinois Public Act 095-0241 which requires “districts to report every expenditure category which a third party would incur.”
However, currently U-46 is only in the process of seeking bids meaning it is likely not in violation of that act. U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said at the meeting that there has been no administrative recommendation at this point and any proposal “would be done in a very transparent way after getting input.”
“I want you to know that if you do decide to accept any of those bids there is no way on earth that an outsourced bus company with a revolving door of drivers and assistants from all across Chicagoland will provide you and district U-46 students the safe and reliable services that they have rightfully come to expect,” Wyzykowski said. “You’ve got the best drivers and assistants in the world right here, right now.”
According to U-46’s website the district transports 26,973 students with 363 total buses and 318 bus drivers.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Examiner learned that U-46 bus drivers have had 700 accidents/incidents since 2007 meaning an average of 70 per year.
The Examiner sought the number of accidents and incidents each year as well as how many were deemed the fault of the U-46 driver. Of those 700, nearly half were listed as preventable at 339.
The lowest number of accidents/incidents occurred in 2011 (48 total, 21 preventable) and 2007 (49 total, 25 preventable), and the highest numbers were in 2010 (91 total, 42 preventable), 2015 (90 total, 30 preventable) and 2014 (87 total, 47 preventable). In 2016 there were 62 accidents/incidents, 24 of which were listed as preventable.
Steele said that First Student has “been in this business for 100 years” and transports six million students each day, including for several Illinois districts, which is greater than the number of air travelers every day.
Although DUTU believes profit seeking harms the quality of service, it can be argued that the private sector must actually compete for business which makes the profit motivation one that leads to higher quality service.
“I would say generally the time, effort and money a contractor spends on safety outweighs that of a district,” Steele said.
Steele said that taxpayers generally see between 10 and 20 percent savings when a district outsources with First Student, but “cost savings is just one of the motivations.”
“By any measure, First Student has an outstanding safety record,” said Steele who added that transportation “is our primary business” meaning districts can focus their attention on their primary role which is education.
First Student’s safety record is double that of the industry standard, which is measured through collisions and injuries, and it recently became the only school transportation company to receive the Green Cross award for safety from the National Safety Council. In 2016 it received 19 awards from the National School Transportation Association.
Steele said that First Student is heavily involved in the communities it serves, and its website states: “Our ties to your community don’t end with the bottom line or a conversation about efficiency. Our drivers are residents, and our solutions and systems are unique to your district-specific needs. We care about your community and the people and organizations that call it home, and we want to support the educational mission of your school district.”
“We feel we play a vital part in the educational experience,” Steele said. “We love what we do.”