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East, West vote to switch special ed busing contracts

Bus drivers listen comments Monday School District 129 meeting Monday West AurorHigh School. Board members voted hire different company for

Bus drivers listen to comments Monday at the School District 129 meeting Monday at West Aurora High School. Board members voted to hire a different company for special needs students for the 2012-13 school year. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 9, 2012 8:10AM

AURORA — The East and West Aurora school boards voted Monday night to switch their joint special education busing services from longtime provider Richlee Vans to Durham School Services.

The West Aurora School Board voted unanimously to switch to California-based Durham School Services. The East Aurora School Board voted 4-3 to approve the Durham bid.

East board President Annette Johnson and members Anita Lewis, Mary Ann Turza and Stella Gonzalez voted for the new contract. Board members Ray Hull, Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes and Richard Leonard voted against switching firms.

In the weeks leading up to Monday’s vote, both districts were flooded with complaints, and praises, about Richlee’s service. The company, based in Aurora, has provided busing on the East Side for more than 20 years, and on the West Side since 2007.

Some parents worry that changing drivers, and buses, could create chaos for the district’s most challenged children, who thrive on consistency.

Some taxpayers, however, are concerned about the financial impact of the switch. West Aurora schools spokesman Mike Chapin said that safety, not cost, must be the first consideration in special education busing contracts, according to state school code.

Both new bids, from Richlee Vans and Durham, come in lower than the district’s current contract. The district would save money with either contract, Chapin said.

The 2010-12 Richlee contract was about $11.6 million. Durham’s 2012-14 bid was $11.17 million. Richlee’s 2012-14 bid was $9.4 million.

If board members would have opted to stay with Richlee, the two-year savings to the districts would be $1.7 million.

East Aurora meeting

Monday night’s vote brought out a standing-room-only crowd at East Aurora Student Services Center. Administrators added extra chairs in the hallway for speakers.

About a dozen people spoke prior to the vote, all urging the board to consider renewing the contract with Richlee Vans. Johnson gave each speaker one minute to address the board.

Lewis asked Johnson if Durham had offered to hire Richlee drivers and keep them on existing bus routes.

“That is the case,” Johnson said, as long as the Richlee drivers were in good standing and eligible for the employment.

Richlee Vice President John Knoelke said Richlee had served the district well for more than 20 years.

“The fact is (our bid is) $1.7 million lower over two years. We’re asking you not just to vote,” he said.

Johnson said Richlee low-balled the bid, causing her concern.

“Management of Richlee was called about complaints,” she said. “We’re going to scrutinize (Durham) like we’ve scrutinized Richlee.”

But Hull, who voted against the Durham contract, said the district may be switching bus companies — “from the devil we know to the devil we don’t know.”

Hull said instead the district needed to give Richlee a chance to straighten problems out.

“If Durham wanted the contract, as I always say, they should have sharpened their pencil,” he said.

West Aurora

At the West board meeting, Durham CEO John Elliott again said the company intends to hire back qualified Richlee drivers.

Although West Aurora’s vote was unanimous, board member Angie Smith chose to abstain because of a conflict of interest. As Oswego schools finance director, she deals with busing contracts.

West Aurora board members applauded Richlee drivers who have gone above and beyond to build relationships with students and their families. But they said they could not ignore the problems that have increased over the last six months.

Late drop-off and pick-up times, poor communication and rider complaints have mounted, said Christi Tyler, West Aurora chief financial officer.

For West board member Mark Bradford, that was enough to cast his vote for Durham.

“This contract goes to the lowest responsible bidder,” he said. “I don’t have confidence that Richlee can provide that service.”

Durham’s promise

Heidi Humiston of Aurora said at East Aurora she was a student who had been served by Richlee Vans and works for the company now.

“When you take away from kids we’ve grown to know, that changes everything,” she said. “Please reconsider the decision you’re making for these kids and their families.”

Dozens of upset drivers got up and left as soon as the unanimous vote was cast at West Aurora. West board member Amie Thompson assured them that Durham will do its best to bring them back.

“It doesn’t matter what company signs your paycheck,” she said. “We want to keep you. I’m rooting for you, and I wish you the best.”

East President Johnson also said she would personally enforce Durham’s promise to hire good Richlee drivers.

“I will hold people accountable,” she said.

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