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Article updated: 4/8/2013 8:51 AM

Records provide insight into Dist. 15 bus safety

By Kimberly Pohl

As the debate in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 over whether to privatize school bus service continues to heat up -- and board negotiations with the transportation union remain at a standstill -- the issue of safety has emerged alongside finances as paramount.

But exactly how safely the transportation department operates is a big point of contention.

The Daily Herald found there were 55 accidents between Jan. 1, 2012, and March 19, 2013, according to district records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. An analysis showed most were minor events, and that the majority of bus drivers involved were not at fault.

Of those, three crashes sent a total of seven students to the hospital. All appeared to be for minor injuries or as a precaution.

The transportation department is one of the area's largest, busing 10,500 District 15 private and parochial school students daily. It consists of 156 bus drivers responsible for more than 600 individual routes, and its buses drove more than 1.6 million miles combined in the past year, Director of Transportation Tom Bramley said.

It's difficult to determine whether the number of accidents is above or below average for a department of District 15's size.

Michael Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said he's unaware of data that addresses the matter because "school districts don't always utilize the same definition of an accident or incident."

Don West, president of the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation, said the number doesn't seem out of the ordinary.

"Considering the number of routes and students that they transport, I would consider that to be an average number," West said.

Bramley said in many cases, the bus driver was not at fault.

"Yes, we've had accidents, but I couldn't say without having comparative data whether we're on the high end, the low end or the average," Bramley said. "If possible, I'd like to see the number of accidents come down. Zero would be lovely."

Carin Ulrich, president of the District 15 Transportation Union, said there hasn't been a serious accident in years, and lauded the department's safety record.

She said the district bus drivers and aides are more invested in students than a private company's employees would be. Ulrich added that most drivers live in the district and have more longevity than employees with Durham School Services, the busing company being considered for outsourcing.

When asked about the number of accidents over the past 14-plus months, school board President Tim Millar said he's more concerned about what could happen in the future, given the current policies in place.

For example, he said, the contract only requires basic physicals and not a more stringent fitness for duty test that Durham would do. Millar said he's worried that the health of certain drivers would prevent them from being effective in an emergency. One, he said, uses a cane, and life insurance payouts since March 2011 show five bus drivers and aides have died.

"It needs to be about more than just your ability to be behind the wheel," Millar said. "These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night."

Records obtained through the FOIA request show the union has filed several grievances this year, including one on behalf of a member who failed a physical. The union stated that the district violated the current contract by "failing to maintain consistency in mandated employee physicals ... being administered by the district-selected providers."

In addition, Millar wants routes assigned based on the needs of the children, not picked based on seniority. He also said Durham would use electronic devices that require more interactive safety checks that can't be performed from the driver's seat.

Millar said he hopes that new safety measures could help prevent a major accident as well as cut back on the number of dismissals and complaints about drivers.

Records show that the district fired 14 bus drivers between January 2009 and March 2013. Two were dismissed for violating the district's drug and alcohol policy, three for leaving a child on the bus and two for poor job performance.

Other reasons for dismissal included violating safety rules, failure to pass the physical, being found unqualified during training and threatening another driver.

Over the last 14 months, community members and parents made 22 complaints about issues including buses starting to move before kids are seated, driving too fast and tardiness.

The most recent came after a March 19 field trip to the Lizzadro Museum in Elmhurst. A district investigation found that on the return home on Route 53, the door opened due to a mechanical pin defect. An adult on the DVD footage is heard saying a child got hit in the face with an object that came in.

The district determined the driver should have checked with a supervisor to determine whether the bus was safe to drive, and also should have immediately attended to the student and called either the school nurse or 911.

"The handling of both these safety issues represent egregious errors in expected professional behavior," the district report stated.

Ulrich said the union has tried to bring up safety issues and filed grievances to get the district to clarify practices, but never receives an answer. She believes Millar is being disingenuous by emphasizing his concerns with safety.

"It wasn't until we proved that staying in-house would actually save money that (Millar) started saying safety was his top issue," Ulrich said. "Safety has always been primary in our eyes."

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