New bus company in place, ready for new year
DeSoto's school bus fleet was ready to roll last week despite some major changes from last year.
Laidlaw Transit took over the district's bus contract this summer after school officials expressed concern over the previous company's lack of experience with paid ridership.
The district decided last year to begin charging students who live closer than 2.5 miles to their school to ride the bus. Crabtree-Harmon, which had held the district's bus contract for many years, had never dealt with paid ridership.
When the contract came up for renewal, transportation director Jack Deyoe recommended the school board go with Laidlaw Transit, a company that had extensive experience with charging students to ride.
The recommendation was met with resistance from a majority of the district's bus drivers.
About 20 of the 26 drivers approached the school board, threatening to quit if the Crabtree-Harmon contract was not renewed.
Despite concern that they would have a difficult time finding new drivers, board members took Deyoe's recommendation and awarded the contract to Laidlaw. Officials from the new company told the board they would rehire any of the current drivers who passed a background check and driving test. Laidlaw officials also agreed to give the drivers credit for the years they had worked for Crabtree-Harmon.
Frieda Wells, supervisor of Laidlaw's DeSoto branch said many of last year's drivers returned and she had enough employees to fill the 26 positions.
"We're doing really well. Most of the drivers have been hired and we have some going through training now," Wells said last week. "We would still like to find a few more just to have a few spare drivers."
Wells said it was important to have the drivers in place well before the school year began. Getting a driver behind the wheel takes some time, she said.
Drivers must first pass a physical examination and a criminal background check, she explained. Laidlaw officials also check the applicants' driving records and put them through 20 hours of classroom work. Finally, the applicants must undergo 15 hours of driver training.
Wells said the transition to paid ridership had gone smoothly. Weeks before school began, the company sent out 1,817 letters, letting students and their parents know whether they would have to pay to ride and which route they would be on.
Most riders who live within 2.5 miles of their school had paid by the Aug. 4 deadline, Wells said. The district would continue to accept payments of $150 per child for the year from those who decide to sign up late. The maximum charge for any family would be $300 a year, she explained.
"We only charge for up to two students per family. Any children beyond that ride for free," she said. "We expect to have a few sign up after school starts. A lot of parents think they want to drive their children to school but then see what the traffic's like and decide to put them on the bus."
Parents can pay the full amount or pay half each semester, she said.
The new bus company also had to deal with a number of rerouting issues due to the opening of Mize Elementary and Mill Valley High School this year. Mills said. Even without the opening of the new schools, routing in the DeSoto district would be a challenge.
"We started working on the routes in June. We had to change a few from what they used last year because of the new schools. The DeSoto district is so large it really makes it tough anyway," Wells said. "We cover a lot of territory. Much more than most districts this size."
With the routes in place and the drivers ready, Mills waited for the approval of the Kansas Highway Patrol. State troopers inspect each school bus in the state, checking everything from brakes to brake lights.
The DeSoto buses were given the state's seal of approval last Thursday.