The professionalism of a Barrington-based school bus company is being called into question after a preschool-aged boy's whereabouts were unknown to his family for nearly three and a half hours during a winter storm earlier this month.
Wendy Brander of Hoffman Estates said her grandson's day at Barrington Unit District 220's Early Learning Center ended at 3:40 p.m. Feb. 7, but it wasn't until 7:08 p.m. that the boy walked through the front door of his North Barrington home.
During the intervening hours, the family was not able to get accurate information about where the boy was, either directly from Barrington Transportation Co. or secondhand from the school district, Brander said.
Both company and school district officials expressed regret for the incident, which they blamed on a combination of bad weather, traffic, a mechanical breakdown and an overwhelming number of inquiries from concerned families.
Barrington Transportation Co. General Manager Jon Sander said the company is establishing a direct link to a secretary at the school district's administrative office so that such a lapse of communication won't recur.
"Our dispatch staff was inundated with calls," Sander said. "It was difficult to contact everyone in the timely manner they deserved. We regret terribly that that occurred. I can totally understand -- I'm the father of a 3-year-old myself."
He notes that all 7,200 students his company buses got home safely during the very trying conditions of that day.
"For us, that's the big thing," he said, adding that last Friday's snowfall resulted in no delays or problems.
On Feb. 7, snowy conditions caused most buses to run significantly late, Sander said. The bus Brander's grandson was on left the Early Learning Center on Dundee Road in Barrington much later than scheduled due to the delay of an earlier route.
The boy lives on the far north side of the district and was the only child still on the bus when it got trapped in traffic between two jackknifed semitrailer trucks on Route 59 north and south of Route 22.
The bus was equipped with a heat shield over the front grill to keep the interior temperature warm in the cold weather. But after idling in traffic for so long, the bus's engine began to overheat, forcing the driver to pull off onto a side street. Though a backup vehicle was called for, it was unable to move through the snarled traffic that had delayed the original bus in the first place.
Sander said bus driver deserves praise for making sure the boy was safe, warm and entertained while they waited for help to arrive.
But Brander said she remains frustrated about the communication issue. She wonders whether the events of Feb. 7, along with allegations last year that a driver inappropriately touched four students, should lead District 220 to switch bus companies.
The company placed the driver John Petrone, 68, of Lake in the Hills on suspension immediately after the first report of inappropriate conduct was received last April. He later was charged with four counts of misdemeanor battery.
District 220 Superintendent Tom Leonard said there are criteria by which the district could terminate its contract with the bus company earlier than its 2015 end date, but doesn't believe that criteria has been met.
"There would have to be a series of incidents in which things don't seem to be going in the right direction," Leonard said. "I like to see how things change as time goes on. With this incident (on Feb. 7), I'm not pleased with what happened."
Leonard said the Barrington Transportation Co. has been serving District 220 for more than 60 years. Though he doesn't consider them to have a monopoly, there are not many companies with the experience and ability to handle District 220's unique size and geographical challenges.
The district has regularly gone out to bid for multiyear contracts for its bus service, Leonard said. There have been times when Barrington Transportation Co. has been the only company to bid, but last time three companies bid.