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updated: 9/9/2011 1:19 PM

School bus service sputters out of gate in West Chicago

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The school bus brought the four Castelluccio children home on schedule Thursday for the first time since classes started Aug. 24.

The first few days of school, the bus never came to pick them up in the morning, missing their West Chicago neighborhood entirely. Coming home, the bus was 30 to 75 minutes late every day.

On one trip, the Castelluccios' son tried to tell the driver the bus was going the wrong way, toward Naperville.

"They told him to sit down," dad Joe Castelluccio said.

Parents throughout West Chicago Elementary District 33 reported similar problems following "the most difficult start to the school year I've ever experienced," Superintendent Ed Leman said.

Leman said there's been a marked improvement in service since the end of last week, as the district's new transportation provider, Illinois Central School Bus, adds more drivers.

"They have replaced some people; they are working much more aggressively (to fix the problems)," Leman said. "I am pretty confident that trend will continue until we get to an acceptable level for the long haul."

Leman got an earful from about 130 parents who turned out this week for a meeting on the bus service.

"There was a lot of frustration, a lot of anxiety, kids on the buses too long, interfering with child care, interfering with (parents') work schedules," Leman said.

"Early on, we had very poor communication with the company. Buses were late and we couldn't get through to the dispatcher or the dispatchers weren't able to tell us right away where the buses were. We have had children unaccounted for for a long time, and that's very unnerving."

In the most serious incident, a kindergartner got off at the wrong school and started to walk home.

The district called 911 and also sent another bus to the school where the child got off. "We found her in a very short time," Leman said.

Illinois Central School Bus outbid the district's previous transportation company, First Student, for the three-year contract that began this school year. It's the fifth-largest school transportation company in the nation and also the fastest-growing the past two years.

"We had every reason to believe they would do as well as First Student and hopefully better," Leman said. "Of course, it fell apart pretty quickly."

The bus company counted on having more drivers sign on from First Student and did not start the school year with enough drivers, Leman said.

Officials at Illinois Central School Bus could not be reached for comment Friday.

The contract provides for penalties for late routes and delays, which District 33 will pursue, Leman said.

Illinois Central also serves Community High School in West Chicago, which has experienced similar problems with delays or missed routes this year.

Most routes are running close to normally now, Leman said, but he asked parents to continue reporting delays and other problems with bus service.

"Many of the parents have been absolutely fabulous in hanging in there with us," Leman said. "There isn't a fast fix where we can flip a switch and make it all better."