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Unit 5 buses

Students get off First Student school buses in October 2016 at Parkside Junior High School in Normal.

NORMAL — The lack of communication between First Student and the McLean County Unit 5 staff and families is a problem for the school board.

“It frustrates me, I’m not gonna lie. Communication’s got to be essential and it’s got to be on point,” said board member Mike Trask at Wednesday’s meeting.

In the first nine days of school, the Cincinnati-based private busing contractor has processed 955 route changes, which include address changes and students being added or removed from the bus rosters, resulting in delayed pickups and drop-offs as well as other problems.

First Student General Manager Chris Coyle said the problems faced so far this school year are in line with what can be expected for a district of this size, and despite widespread delays, most buses are running on time.

“Typically when buses are out there they’re delayed because of students being put on the wrong bus or are trying to find lost students,” he said. “We’re still seeing some of that but it is considerably less than what it was in the first week.”

When students are lost, Coyle said the safety of the children takes priority over communicating with parents.

“When you’re dealing with lost children, we basically stop whatever we’re doing and everybody focuses on that. That’s our goal: We are there to protect the children,” he said. “ I understand that, yes, we need to communicate with the parents, but that’s our No. 1 priority ... the safety of the children.”

Board members Alan Kalitzky, Barry Hitchens and Meta Mickens-Baker also spoke up alongside Trask to emphasize the importance of communication.

“The only comments I really get are about the lack of communication. There’s a complete understanding that there are going to be bumps. That is not the concern,” Kalitzky said.

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“When I hear that there is a one-hour delay and that parent is totally fine with that one-hour delay because they have been notified that it’s going to occur, I think that gives everyone a better sense and understanding as to what to expect,” he added.

Jeremiah Houston, a union representative for the bus drivers, also spoke during public comments about drivers not being made aware of the accommodations special education students may need and expressed concern for the liabilities that could present.

First Student Location Manager Robert Pawlik addressed his concerns during the transportation update, saying the accommodations are up to date. Coyle said the company will validate and review those accommodations to ensure those students travel safely.

2019-20 budget

In other business, the preliminary 2019-20 district budget was presented Wednesday. It shows Unit 5 has a $12.8 million deficit on a budget of $192 million for all funds, but “the budget is balanced because we have money in the bank to cover our spending for the year,” said Marty Hickman, the district’s business manager.

The working cash and life safety funds, which account for most of the deficit, will be repaid by existing bonds, and the education fund, which is the district's primary operating fund, has a small surplus.

The $11.2 million transportation fund has the only true deficit on the budget at about $56,000, which Hickman said could be balanced by the end of the fiscal year.

“The forecast is within reason to where we could still finish at a balance or a small positive, but what we see early in this year, the trend would put us at a deficit,” he said.

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Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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