By Steve Robinson | August 10, 2017 - 10:06 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – As the new school year approaches, both Normal-based Unit 5 School Board members and an official from First Student Bus Co. agreed on one thing to be paramount on the first day of class Aug. 16: Busing students must show a complete turnaround from the way it was handled at the beginning of last school year.

Mark Bohl, location manager for First Student Bus Co., addressed Board members at their Aug. 9 meeting at district headquarters, assuring them this year’s transportation situation will be a complete improvement from last year, which included among other things, late buses both to and home from school.

“The 16th is game time,” Bohl said, putting a positive spin on how ready he and his drivers are to get the job done. He told Board members First Student has 144 drivers total, with another 26 in training to handle the 126 routes they must cover to get kids to and from school.

“It was stressed to drivers how important what happened last year can’t happen again,” added Joe Adelman, operations manager for the district, who participated in the meeting’s busing discussion. Adelman added that Bohl “has taken ownership of” the district’s busing component.

Should overcrowding on buses become an issue this year, Bohl said, additional buses will be deployed to meet up with buses needing to reduce its number of passengers, getting those additional students on a particular bus to class safely. There was such crowding on some buses last year that students were sitting in the aisles. In addition to late buses, overcrowding on buses was a frequent complaint lodged with the district.

There will be enough buses on the street, Bohl told Board members, “With the exception of three or four buses, I expect the bus depot lot to be empty.”

Unit 5 mapAdelman added, however, parents will need to exercise some patience during the first few days buses are running. “We can’t control trains going through,” he said. “We can’t control ISU students coming back which might cause delays.” That was a reference to Illinois State University students coming back to town as their fall semester begins Aug. 21. They have been arriving back in town for the semester this week.

Mike Trask, perhaps the most vocal Board member to be critical of how the busing situation developed last year, told Bohl after hearing what First Student has planned, “I have full confidence in you. I appreciate the driver numbers and where they’re at. We fully expect Aug. 16’s activity to not be outside the norm.”

Leading up to Aug. 16, Bohl informed Board members First Student drivers would hold dry runs on routes on Aug. 14 and 15, a process which would include verifying routes and spot-checking for miscellaneous issues.

Despite such planning, Bohl cautioned, buses could run late at times. When those moments occur, should the bus be late getting to school by over 10 minutes, the school will be notified by phone and email. Should that delay happen on the way home, parents will receive a phone message through the district’s Skyward messaging system.

Working Cash Abatement Approved: Board members unanimously approved abating the working cash fund the district had used to spend $3.5 million to purchase 26 buses and renew leases on five others. The money used to pay for the buses was approved last year and the money went from the district’s working cash fund into the Transportation fund to make the purchases. As a result of the recent purchases, Unit 5 now has a total of 145 buses, explained Marty Hickman, business manager for the district.

Board Approves Memorandum Of Understanding With Town: Board members approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the district and the Town of Normal. As a result, the two governing bodies will form a Liaison Committee which would be comprised of two members from the district and two Town Council members. With an initial meeting scheduled for Aug. 29, it is anticipated that group will meet quarterly. Each group will choose two members to be part of the committee, with City Manager Mark Peterson and Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, attending, as well. However, Peterson and Daniel would not be voting members.

At a joint meeting of Unit 5 Board members and Town Council members held in Council Chamber July 26, Normal Mayor Chris Koos directed Peterson to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town and the district. Peterson would negotiate the agreement with Daniel.

Steve RobinsonIn the column I wrote last week, I mentioned that First Student Bus Co. officials say they believe they have done as much as possible to prevent the problems students, their parents, and district officials experienced as a result of late buses, and a shortage of regular and substitute drivers

The situation resulted in a need for change in time for the start of this school year. No one – not district administrators, First Student representatives, and of course, parents and students – want a repeat of that situation.

Members of Normal-based Unit 5 Board of Education looked to make every effort to get in front of the situation once they had the full scope of it, including making sure the Cincinnati, Ohio-based transportation company knew there would be consequences – including the possibility of terminating the contract the two parties had in place – if First Student didn’t fix matters.

Among those Board members, Mike Trask, who is in the middle of his second term, once he saw what was unfolding at the start of last year, referred to the situation on the part of First Student as “an epic fail.” It was a term those who attended Board meetings heard him use whenever the subject of the start of last school year’s situation was brought up.

But with school starting next week, on Aug. 16, Trask admitted to me he still has “some skepticism” about how things will go. Trask admits that skepticism is based on last year’s events.

As Trask assesses the situation at this point, “I will say with the new management structure at First Student, the new alliance, between First Student and its drivers, and of course, the number of drivers that are actively showing up, I have a lot of strong confidence that we will start off the first day much, much, much better than last year.”

“Will it be perfect?” Trask asked rhetorically. “No. But I don’t think any school year, when we start off, ever starts perfectly.” He said he’s looking for “what should be the norm when things start this year than what they did last year.”

He said First Student having an adequate number of drivers – enough drivers for the 126 routes – was important. He also said communication between the district and the bus company, and then extending that communication and information to parents was important to consider.

Trask said the communication between the district and First Student “needs to be open and proactive.”

To First Student officials, Trask reminded there is a binding contract between them and the district which needs to be honored.

As for the parties who receive service through this contract, Trask had some thoughts for parents whose children get to and from school because of First Student’s efforts. “My advice to parents is that if there is something that isn’t going right, to make sure they make the proper contacts and reach out to First Student.”

He added, after contacting First Student, and they still aren’t feeling good about the response they get, “parents can reach out to Dr. Daniel.” That would be Dr. Mark Daniel, Unit 5’s District Superintendent.

But Trask reminds, “There is a normal amount of patience we all have to have at the beginning of the year.”

By Steve Robinson | July 29, 2017 - 10:29 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Steve RobinsonLate buses, either at the start or end of the school day. Uncertainty over where a bus is exactly when it is expected at a specific location. A shortage of regular and substitute drivers. All of these items plagued Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co., the transportation provider for Normal-based Unit 5 schools at the beginning of last school year.

As a result, there were many angry parents who made their feelings known at a number of district Board meetings. It took a change in First Student’s chain of command for the matter to see a turnaround.

This newspaper did extensive reporting on the busing situation that arose last school year, and the most notable quote from the whole episode for me was from Unit 5 Board Member Mike Trask, who reminded First Student officials who attended those meetings that Dr. Mark Daniel was the district superintendent and not the bus depot supervisor. That comment came as a result of Daniel having had to be involved in the matter practically daily until it could be smoothed out. It took most of the first semester for that to get done, and included a change in First Student’s hierarchy when their location manager at the time resigned five days into the new semester.

But as the current school year approaches, district and First Student officials both say they are ready for the start of school and look forward to making sure such episodes like last year’s aren’t repeated this time around.

Last month, I met with Mark Bohl, location manager, and Ladel Cass, a district manager for First Student, to find out just how preparations were going. Also at that meeting were Daniel and Joe Adelman, operations manager for the district. Bohl assured me the busing routes – all 126 of them – are completely mapped out and that he has enough drivers, substitutes, and monitors to get the job done when school opens in the district Aug. 16.

Right now, Bohl said, he has 145 drivers on his roster ready to drive. That means they have completed the necessary training and are certified by the State. In addition to those, he added, the company has “a significant number of driver candidates in the pipeline.”

At the time I did the interviews in mid-July, Bohl added that First Student was still waiting for information from the close of summer school and from parents who would submit changes before making any last minute tweaks to routes. Those changes are something the busing provider anticipated, he explained.

Bohl was “able to turn the situation around very quickly” after his hiring in October, explained Adelman. Adelman added First Student has made sure they have a 20 percent staffing of substitute drivers on hand to step in if there are issues. Bohl added parents can access routes using the district’s Skyward information system. That information, he said, is regularly updated.

For parents who read this and still are skeptical that their fears and concerns over what took place last year might get repeated later this month, Bohl said all aspects have been addressed, adding, “It’s going to be better. We’re going to accomplish the task. I foresee a great startup. We’ve got everything in place. The drivers are engaged, and everyone’s excited.”

Preparation for the situation will also include keeping the public informed through the local media, Daniel added. In addition, parents will receive notices through Skyward, he said.

“We’re going to be starting this year with what we ended last year with in terms of expected performance,” Cass added. He said once problems developed as they did last year, First Student’s corporate staff in Ohio offered suggestions to help improve the situation.

“I know this is a business operation. First Student is watching what is going on this school year,” Cass added. He said both he and Bohl have frequent calls from their superiors asking about progress made, and inquiring about any sort of assistance which might be needed at this point.

Bohl said working with Unit 5 “is key and has been a joy.” He said doing the job the company does without any kind of support from a district makes First Student’s job harder. But the two groups have been working as a team to see that last year’s problematic start isn’t repeated.

I also spoke to Trask about the situation and about his hopes for how the situation will progress as the new school year begins. I will bring you his comments in my next column.

Unit 5NORMAL – In years past, members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board and Normal Town Council members have tried to form a committee which would examine an issue or concern both groups had a need to address for the good of the community.

During those years, such agreements to begin those committees never quite took hold. But following a joint session of the two governmental bodies July 26 in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station, Council and Unit 5 Board members have agreed to try again.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos directed City Manager Mark Peterson to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town and the district. Peterson would negotiate the agreement with Dr. Mark Daniel, Unit 5’s District Superintendent. Peterson and Daniel sat side by side at the speakers’ table across from a nearly-full dais of both Council and Board members who sat at the Council table.

All seven Unit 5 Board members joined five of the seven Normal Town Council members for the session that lasted nearly an hour. Normal Town Council Member Chemberly Cummings was away on business and Council Member Kevin McCarthy was on vacation.

“I think we can pull this committee together and get started pretty quickly,” Koos told Peterson and Daniel. He added the two governmental entities are and have been looking for items where they can collaborate together.

“I’m so appreciative that we are here talking about how to expand our collaborative efforts,” Daniel told the gathering.

Town of Normal“We need to keep the lines of communication open,” Koos responded, explaining that, in the past, such attempts at collaboration had faded. “We don’t want that to happen again.”

Council Member Kathleen Lorenz, a former member of the Normal Planning Commission, said when NPC dealt with a particular issue, she often found herself asking if the school district was aware of the matter being discussed.

Peterson said such collaboration would have been helpful last December when both groups were deciding whether to assist electric car manufacturer Rivian Automotive as it sought to purchase the former Mitsubishi Motors North America plant on the Town’s west end.

Separately, Council and School Board members are expected to approve establishing a permanent committee which would have members from each group. It is anticipated that group will meet quarterly, and that their first meeting could come as early as sometime in August. Each group will choose two members to be part of the committee, with Peterson and Daniel attending. However, Peterson and Daniel would not be voting members.

Unit 5-State Budget Update Presented: Unit 5 Business Manager Marty Hickman presented the gathering with a recap of the district’s financial standing as it waits for money from the State budget to arrive, provided State Senate Bill 1 is either signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner or vetoed by Rauner followed by the veto being overturned by legislators.

If funds do not arrive in a timely manner, Unit 5 schools could close after 60 attendance days, said Hickman. That would put the closing sometime in November. Classes start Aug. 16, but the district’s problems will be compounded should the funding impasse go on past Aug. 3, added Hickman.

Unit 5NORMAL – It’s still summer and that means families probably still haven’t thought about matters relating to school just yet. But officials at Normal-based Unit 5 School District have been working and keeping an eye on matters such as school funding. The district anticipates receiving money owed it once Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the funding bill which would release dollars from Springfield to local districts.

Senate Bill 1 needs to either be signed by Rauner or have the Illinois General Assembly override a Rauner veto of the legislation for money to begin arriving. There is also concern how an increase in the State income tax, passed by Senate Democrats in May, will affect the district.

Dr. Mark Daniel, District Superintendent, explained that although the budget for the State has been passed, “The distribution of those funds is still in limbo. That’s very concerning for us.” Daniel said the district has 60 days’ worth of reserves which would be gone by mid-October barring any sudden need for the cash to be used.

“We will do our level best to find alternative funding,” Daniel said. “We will use those resources to the extent we can until there truly is no more school.” If the funding isn’t released for the district to keep operating, he said, he suspects “there will be enough mothers standing on the Capitol steps of Springfield and pounding down doors, that I think legislators will find a way to distribute funds.”

At recent Unit 5 Board of Education meetings, Daniel and Board members, most notably Board Member Mike Trask, have encouraged parents to write and call legislators. Daniel said, “I think there’s been a steady flow of communication to legislators” concerning the matter.”

Unit 5 mapDaniel said he thinks if SB1 or another bill which would send the money due the district in its direction isn’t passed soon, “There will be so much public frustration and push-back, and when mothers are on the doorstep of the Capitol, that will cause our legislators to find ways to distribute funds.”

Unit 5 has $5.4 million in back payments due it from Springfield which would be reimbursement due the district for Transportation and Special Education during the 2016-17 school year. Daniel said he expects that funding to be received, but can’t say when the district will see it arrive.

SB1 increases Unit 5’s funding to “over $400,000, to be received,” Daniel said. “If, in addition to that amount, we were to receive the 80 to 85 percent of proration the State said that they will give us for Transportation, that would be better that the 70 percent proration we received from them last year.”

But Daniel cautioned, $400,000 can be received and spent rather quickly if an urgent need were to develop. He said an urgent need such as helping a special needs child or pay the repair bill on an air conditioning chiller could drain the fund quickly.

In May, State Senate Democrats opted to pass legislation which increased the State income tax and widened State sales taxes. State income tax increases are helping to finance the money coming in from SB 1, Daniel reminded. As a result of the vote, the personal income tax rate went up from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent, while the corporate income tax rate would go from 5.25 percent to 7 percent.