Schools nationwide are facing transportation issues to start the 2021-2022 school year, and Flossmoor School District 161 has not been immune to the trend.
“It’s been a rough, rough start,” Associate Superintendent Frances LaBella told the district’s board of education the evening of Monday, Aug. 30.
In June, LaBella warned the board transportation could be “a nightmare” this school year, But by July she said it might not be as bad as feared, following further conversations with transportation provider Kickert. On Aug. 30, she told the board District 161 went from having 20 buses to 15 because of driver shortages, and when it actually gets 15 “it’s a godsend.”
The executive management, dispatchers and others at Kickert are all driving buses, because the company does not have substitutes available when drivers call off of work. Routes have been running late because Kickert is attempting to fit multiple routes across multiple districts into both morning arrival and afternoon dismissal times, LaBella added. She said they are “stealing” from other districts, providing help to others and doing anything else that might be needed to get through the transportation challenges.
“It’s a zoo out there right now, because there’s just not enough drivers to make it work,” she said. “There are really just days where we feel like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. It has been all hands on deck”
LaBella added that the district’s two minibuses are trying to pick up some of the slack, but that has required pick-up and drop-off at three different schools. One of those minibuses had mechanical problems on the first day of school, so the district has been renting a minibus from Cook-Illinois, Kickert’s parent company, during repairs.
The transportation issue also has created concerns for four paraprofessionals who assist on the two minibuses. Because those buses are running routes “almost the entire day,” LaBella said the paraprofessionals have not been available in the schools to do the jobs they are assigned.
LaBella asked the board to hire two full-time paraprofessionals for the minibuses they already have, and she also requested the rental of a third minibus from Cook-Illinois for the rest of the school year to relieve strain on the minibus routes, and provide opportunities for band and orchestra students when that program begins in September. That bus would necessitate an additional driver.
An additional driver could cost $25,000-$29,000 for the remainder of the year, LaBella said. Paraprofessional will be between $15,000 and $20,000 each, she said. But the hope is that funding will be offset by the five buses the district is short from Kickert without an impact to the overall transportation budget, LaBella said. No action was taken on the item at the Aug. 30 meeting, as it was presented only for discussion.
The district is also working with Kickert on a Plan B for routes when Kickert has drivers call off for the day to avoid “chaos,” LaBella added. They are also considering putting a 72-passenger bus at Parker with a minibus driver getting behind the wheel, if necessary.
“They are very excited about that possibility,” LaBella said of Kickert. “The bottom line is: We’re just trying to figure out contingency plans on top of contingency plans to make this work”
Closed captioning revisited
The school board revisited a closed captioning discussion related to streaming technology in the district. The board on Aug. 15 approved upgrades to its streaming technology, but the second component for providing the community with greater access to its content is to add closed captioning to posted videos, according to a report from Superintendent Dana Smith.
Smith suggested a proposal from a company called Rev that can produce captioning with 99% accuracy and a 12-hour turnaround time, he said. The cost to implement it would be $1.50 per minute, which is a $1.25 base price plus $.25 for verbatim transcription. The district would be billed on a monthly basis for services.
Smith noted the plan is to caption school board meetings to start, but he added that the board could discuss the possibility of also captioning committees, presentations and Desserts with D161 events. The item was only on the agenda for discussion at the Aug. 30 meeting.