Reiterating that no decision has been made either way, the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 board is taking a step toward privatizing its transportation system.
Despite impassioned pleas by dozens of supporters to keep busing in-house -- many of whom wore black at Wednesday's board meeting in a sign of solidarity -- officials said they'll seek bids from private firms to take over the service.
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The move could save the district about $600,000, or 10 percent of its $6 million transportation budget, a consultant said.
"It would be a dereliction of duty to not do this," board President Tim Millar said.
Board members who agreed to start the bidding process said the effort is a fact-finding mission so an informed decision can be made. The issue likely will be discussed again at the Jan. 16 meeting.
The district's transportation union, which formed in 2010 with a contract that expires in June, represents about 200 bus drivers, aides, mechanics and clerical staffers working on a district-owned fleet of 166 buses.
Union President Carin Ulrich said many are District 15 residents who have a stake in the community and its children.
"Private bus companies will promise you anything in order to get your business, but they cannot replace the dedication and professionalism that our current transportation provides everyday," said Ulrich, adding that the union has identified cost-saving measures.
Drivers shared examples of service they say wouldn't come with a private firm, such as returning to school with a forgotten lunch or interacting with a student year after year.
Some parents said minor problems have been remedied quickly because there's no middle man involved, while others stressed the importance of knowing their special needs children are in trustworthy hands.
"I know every time (my son) leaves my house, he'll be safe because the drivers care about him," Sandra Tentler of Palatine said.
Some board members cautioned of "misinformation" and "scare tactics" being circulated. Millar disagreed that privatization would mean giving up control, for instance, saying the district deals with more restrictions now due to the union's involvement.
Should the privatization happen, Superintendent Scott Thompson said safety and service will remain at current levels, and that any contract with a private firm requires the company to offer positions to qualified district employees. Other districts including Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 have outsourced transportation for years.
Board members Rich Bokor and Peggy Babcock dissented, pointing out a situation earlier this week where a substitute bus driver at a private company made the news for leaving a group of first through third graders alone on a street corner in South suburban Harvey.
"(We need to) keep in mind that we can't put a price on the safety of our children," Babcock said.