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First Student school buses pick up children Wednesday at Oakdale Elementary School, Normal. First Student has met performance objectives set by Unit 5 and received a two-year contract extension.

NORMAL — Improvement to the performance and overall culture of school bus service led the McLean County Unit 5 board to extend its contract with First Student.

The Unit 5 board approved a two-year extension to its contract with the Cincinnati-based bus service provider at Wednesday's meeting. The contract, worth about $7.9 million annually and containing a $287,000 annual increase, will run until the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“I want to thank First Student for what they’ve done, especially this year, in regards to the service they provided with accuracy and timeliness. There’s a new culture at First Student and the fact that we have a sufficient number of drivers is a huge difference from last year,” said Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel.

The school year began in August 2016 with changes to start and dismissal times for all Unit 5 schools. That change, related route changes and a bus driver shortage resulted in months of overcrowded and late buses with unhappy parents and students.

Board member Mike Trask said he can’t erase that first day of chaos from his memory.

After that day I didn’t think we’d be sitting at this table right now,” he said, after the board approved the contract extension.

“Things cannot ever go back to how they were August of 2016. There has been a lot of understanding and change and I appreciate where we are at today,” said Trask.

Unit 5 Business Manager Marty Hickman said payment amounts can change if routes are moved or adjusted.

Other provisions in the contract require First Student to maintain a substitute driver pool of 10 percent of current drivers and improve plans for communication with the district and customer service.

“I’m extremely happy,” said Mark Bohl, First Student location manager for Unit 5. “(The contract renewal) is a good indication of the hard work done by drivers and staff. There are a lot of good things to come.”

Bohl said the culture between drivers and staff has improved and now the drivers are “the biggest recruiters.”

“We have a steady flow of applications and new drivers and our retention levels are improving,” he said.

After the bus discussion, the board approved a $1.05 million bid from Central Illinois Electrical Services to complete energy efficiency projects at Normal Community High School.

The projects include adding metering to the pool to determine cost of water pumping and heating; replacing a geothermal cooling unit in the server room; and dividing three boilers from a single pump and replacing it with variable speed pumps.

Joe Adelman, Unit 5 director of operations and maintenance, said this energy efficiency project is similar to one done at Normal Community West High School last year which is saving the district nearly $12,000 a month.

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Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for The Pantagraph.

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