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Problems cited with new school bus service

DeenBess Sherman

Deena Bess Sherman

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:12AM

When both Aurora school districts changed bus service providers for special needs students from Richlee to Durham, school board meetings were contentious. So I was not surprised when people began to contact me to vent their frustrations about the new provider. Some questioned hiring practices, others cited serious problems with communication and pick ups, and a few told of ongoing problems with equipment, such as lifts not working. The thing I find most troubling, though, is when the district and parents accuse one another of outright lying.

“When the vote came, we were told it was not about the money but the safety of the children,” said Brenda Miles, a driver with 20 years of experience transporting special needs students. “So where was the safety for Felicia Johnson’s son?”

Johnson’s son no longer rides the bus. Zakari, age 12, is autistic and non-verbal, but very bright and knows where he lives, according to Johnson. On August 16, rather than being taken home, Zakari was taken to a stranger’s house. The district says they informed Johnson of the incident the next day. Johnson says that’s absolutely false — that she only learned of it when the man whose door her son was taken to, contacted her directly on Aug. 20th.

“What if there had been a pedophile at the home where Zakari was dropped off?” asked Johnson. “Thank God it was a good man with empathy for special needs children!” She noted that just a few days later there was a murder on that street.

But when Johnson asked for the security tape — a feature that was promised to be up and running on all the buses. She was told the camera was not operating that afternoon.

“How convenient!” She told the Durham representative. “That way I can’t see how you dragged my son off the bus. Zakari would not have gone to a strange house willingly. Where’s the safety when mistakes are made and cameras don’t work?”

District 129 Community Relations Director Mike Chapin confirmed that there were early problems, including children being dropped off at the wrong house and cameras or air conditioning not working. But he assured me all major problems were rectified after the first week, saying, “The safety and security of our students is the primary concern of the school district.”

Chapin said eight randomly selected videos are now watched each week.

As far as Johnson is concerned, it’s too little too late.

Another Aurora parent, Sandy Martinson, recalled the promise that Durham would keep the same drivers on the same routes where possible. Unfortunately, she said there have been four different drivers for her son’s route and kids are confused.

“They don’t even tell us the drivers’ names!” said Martinson. She added that Durham initially laughed at her concerns.

Sarah Lynn had difficulty finding a phone number for Durham and wondered why that hadn’t been sent home with the kids.

Amy Pfister, who has two special needs children on two different Durham buses, said the first couple weeks the calls simply went to an answering machine anyway.

Many parents noted significantly longer bus rides. “Richlee at its worst still got kids home in a timely fashion,” said Kathy Wilson.

When I asked Chapin about this problem, he responded: “The district requires that the bus ride, within the district boundaries, be no longer than one hour.” He sent me a sampling of times on the routes in question for two days in October.

Many don’t see where Durham has offered an overall improvement over Richlee.

Wilson and Pfister attribute much of Durham’s success to the excellent bus staff, trained previously by Richlee.

After trouble with two contractors, perhaps the district should explore other options, including whether it could provide better service itself.

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