NORMAL – Reports of overcrowded buses, students temporarily misplaced, or arriving home late from their first day of school prompted officials from Normal-based Unit 5 School District to move the location of their regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 24 from district headquarters to Normal Community West High School’s cafeteria to accommodate what the district thought would be a high number of concerned parents wanting to address issues.
That proactive action turned out to be correct as 325 people crowded into the school’s cafeteria for the session. There, Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, began the session with an apology. “We have had transportation challenges to say the least, and I want to apologize to the entire community for the service we have provided our students, and these problems are unacceptable.
“Things didn’t materialize as we had hoped,” Daniel added. “In fact, we were very far from it.”
Daniel’s comments were followed by comments from parents during the three-hour session, two-thirds of which was used by frustrated and angered parents who used allotted time during the meeting’s Public Comments section to voice their frustration at how the first day of activity had gone.
Josh Smith was the second of 23 parents to have their say concerning how the end of the first day of school on Aug. 18 went for his daughter, a 9-year-old fifth grader at Parkside Elementary. He told Board members he was likely to be emotional as he told his story about having to call Normal Police when his daughter was missing for two hours following the conclusion of a band practice. The district had arranged for fifth grade band students to get home directly from band without having to go back to their grade school, but NPD found his daughter two hours later on a bus going in a direction opposite from where she should have been to get home.
“She was with five other kids in a bus across town,” Smith detailed. “You just can’t have students missing. That’s completely unacceptable.”
Jonathan and Elysia Amaya told Board members they moved into the district because of what they felt were positives for their non-verbal 4-year-old son, one of their two children. In trying to finding out what had happened to cause their son’s ride to be more than an hour, Jonathan Amaya said his wife called the district office seven times to get some kind of explanation. She never got a return phone call he told Board members.
Jonathan Amaya concluded his statement to Board members with, “Our trust is really vanishing.”
Loretta Palmer relayed to Board members that 30 kids who attend Kingsley Junior High School opted to walk to their homes in the North Meadow Village area from school – a site that bothered her. She said this situation wasn’t just a problem alone for Unit 5 parents. “This isn’t just my children,” she said. “And it’s not just other people’s children. It’s our children. We are a community and as a community, we have to make it right.”
Tom Sennett, the father of a sixth grader, told Board members, “The lack of respect for parents on the part of the district is unbelievable.”
Steven Dean, an employee of First Student Bus Co., the transportation provider for the district, told Board members the district’s busing plan has failed. “You changed things too much, too fast,” he said. He said Unit 5 provided the bus company with information that couldn’t be double-checked quickly enough for the start of the school year. “I agree with these parents,” Dean said. “They should know where their children are.”
From their seats, a couple of people in the audience openly called for Daniel to resign as a result of the circumstances.
Following the public comments, Board members gave their assessment. “I, personally, was embarrassed, extremely disappointed, appalled on how the busing situation was handled,” said Board Member Mike Trask. “I accept minor hiccups at the beginning of the year, but what happened last week and this week is unacceptable.” He added changing school start times so that elementary, junior high, and high school students start their day at school in that order. That comment brought jeering from some audience members.
He reminded the audience that the total numbers of bus routes were reduced by Unit 5 to help reduce a deficit in the district’s transportation budget of $1.4 million. The district hoped different start and dismissal times, along with decreasing the number of buses and reworking bus routes would help Unit 5 save the district $1.2 million.
“We, as a district, were assured by our contracted vendor, First Student, that with the new changes and the reduction of routes, this would all be manageable. I am extremely disappointed in the lack of service Unit 5 has received from First Student.” That admission prompted some in the audience to applaud.
“I never want to see these extreme situations ever occur again,” Trask added. He offered an apology to anyone who had been affected by the issues involved with the situation.
Board Member Jim Hayek, Jr. said he believes the district owes an explanation to those parents who contacted Unit 5 with concerns but who have not yet been contacted by the district.
“We need a recovery plan that can identify problems that can be addressed quickly,” added Board Member John Puzauskas. “Unit 5 and First Student need to work on restructuring and reworking our current plan.”
State Rep. Dan Brady (R-105th Dist.) was present at the meeting and spoke having heard the parents’ stories, told Board members he fully agreed “the State of Illinois unfortunately put you in this situation to some degree” as a result of the district receiving tardy state aid payments.
First Student Manager Resigns: As a result of the circumstances surrounding the bus issues, media reports out of Peoria indicated Jim Stonecipher, location manager for First Student, resigned on Aug. 22.
Board Votes To Return $3.5 Million To Transportation Fund: Board members unanimously voted to abate a $3.5 million working cash fund for the purchase of new buses and also unanimously returned that cash to the district’s transportation fund. Board members had agreed in April to apply $7 million toward new bus purchases.
A hearing on the district’s budget is scheduled for the Board’s Sept. 28 meeting at district headquarters.
Opening Population Up Slightly: Unit 5 schools had an opening day population of 13,478 students which was an increase of 36 students compared to opening day of school last year, explained Curt Richardson, the district’s director of human resources and its attorney, in his report to Board members.