Du Quoin Unit District 300 will be open for school on Monday, although school officials are scrambling overnight after several regular bus drivers said they will not come to work.
On Sunday, the District 300 school board accepted the $2,883,955.56 bid offered by First Student Inc., awarding the national busing company a three-year contract to transport students starting in fall 2022.
Afterward, Superintendent Matt Hickam met with bus drivers, some of whom had earlier expressed a preference for Robinson Transport Inc. to get the bid. When he emerged he said six of the 11 regular morning drivers would be on the job Monday morning, but that five others would not.
Tracy Taylor, the drivers' spokesperson, was unavailable Sunday night.
As of 11 p.m. the routes that did not have drivers for Monday were the Chicken and Lion, plus prekindergarten and special ed.
District officials reached out to Durham Student Services for help, but largely have been working to solve the problem themselves. One success so far: a driver was found for Monday's Dinosaur route.
Roughly half of Du Quoin's student population is eligible for bus service.
At Sunday afternoon's board meeting a majority of board members disqualified Robinson from contention because a company official (or officials) had agreed to meet with drivers to discuss wages and the state of Robinson's bus fleet. Most school board members believed that violated bid protocol.
"Nobody is blaming the drivers for reaching out (to Robinson)," Hickam said, but board members felt that by taking the meeting with the drivers, Robinson got an undue advantage that could have created legal problems for the district.
Both Durham and First Student were also approached by the drivers, but apparently only Robinson agreed to meet with them and share information about their bid. (Because this information came so late, the Call was unable to reach Robinson officials for comment.)
Since the third contender and lowest bidder, Durham Student Services, had the bid taken away from them in an emergency school board meeting on Friday afternoon, the only bidder left was First Student, who among the three was the highest bidder ($27,000 higher than Robinson over three years).
Hickam, however, said First Student was offering what he considered to be the most competitive wage package of all three companies, because they guarantee drivers a 5-hour day where the others guarantee a 4-hour day. Robinson, he said, had the highest per-hour wage, but by guaranteeing drivers 5 hours a day, they would ultimately be better compensated under First Student.
First Student also agreed in its specs to a requirement Du Quoin officials insisted of all bidders: That the daily fleet of buses used in Du Quoin must be no older than five years; and when backup buses were needed they could be no older than eight years.
On the Du Quoin Call Facebook page Sunday night, driver Theresa Knapp said drivers wanted Robinson because it is a southern Illinois company (based in Harrisburg), not a national one.
"When you have huge multinational bus companies like Durham and First Student, small schools fall through the cracks," she wrote. "Look at where we were with Durham. Big corporations have no hometown ties ... with a small company you're helping a local business."
The board, she wrote, was "made aware that if Robinson won the contract 100% of our drivers would be there in the morning. We would finish the year for Durham and move past this entire mess."
Knapp, who drives the special ed bus between Du Quoin, Carbondale and Murphysboro, ended by saying she would be at work on Monday.
The busing crisis in Du Quoin came to a head last Thursday, when the school board voted 5-2 to award the busing bid for the next three years to Durham, which has been transporting Du Quoin kids since 2003. Members Crystal Harsy and Kevin West voted no.
The decision was a blow to drivers, who were angry over their pay, working conditions and what they called the state of disrepair of Durham's bus fleet. For several months drivers had been urging District 300 to cut ties with Durham, and they became hopeful when in March the board delayed accepting Durham's bid for the new contract, in order to study the drivers' complaints in more detail.
Many of the 21 drivers, substitute drivers and bus monitors were at the Thursday meeting, and after the vote some of them angrily dropped their gas cards on the board table.
Hickam said the vote to award the bid to Durham was based on a majority of board members thinking they had a responsibility to take the lowest bidder whenever possible.
"Their legal responsibility as a school board is to consider the lowest responsible bidder," Hickam said.
He said Durham's bid was $350,000 lower than Robinson's over the course of three years, while First Student's bid was about $27,000 higher than Robinson's, also over three years.
He said the board was not unsympathetic to drivers' complaints about substandard wages and an aging, broken down bus fleet. "All seven board members understand the challenges that have come to light in this process," he added.
Friday was a day of upheaval, as drivers staged a walkout in protest of Durham being awarded the bid. The walkout forced District 300 to hastily cancel school and move a teacher institute day scheduled for later in the year to Friday.
Moreover, drivers pledged to resign from Durham immediately and potentially leave District 300 with no drivers for the rest of the year -- unless the board rescinded the Durham bid approval.
The school board called an emergency meeting for late Friday afternoon, where members rescinded the decision to award Durham the bid, reasoning that if all the drivers quit, Durham could not fulfill its contractual obligation to transport Du Quoin students.
Late Friday, Durham Student Services sent a statement via email, through its parent company National Express LLC and Vice President of External Communications Edward Flavin.
"We learned from our customer this evening that the award for our proposed three-year contract for District 300 was rescinded at their board meeting tonight," it said.
"While we are disappointed to hear this turn of events, we will continue to work with District 300 to ensure that we finish out our contract on a solid note for the remainder of this school year."
On n Friday, driver spokesperson Tracy Taylor -- also Durham's general manager in the Du Quoin office -- said her drivers would hold off resigning from Durham and work to the end of the school year, if District 300 quickly approved another bidder.
Taylor added that her drivers would be off Monday and Tuesday of this week, but Hickam wanted school to open Monday. He scheduled Sunday's emergency board meeting to settle on a new bid.
If school wasn't in session Monday and Tuesday, he said, they'd probably have to add days to the end of the school year to make sure students fulfill their minimum allotted days.
"We were able to scramble and move our Institute Day, but we're out of those," he said. "We're out of emergency days" (that were used for bad weather and high numbers of COVID-19 cases). He added that remote learning wasn't an option either, as it is reserved for things related to COVID-19.
Hickam said the district can absorb the additional expense of the higher First Student bid, partly because during the pandemic the government has been funding schools better than before.
If pressed, he added, District 300 can also move money from other funds into their transportation fund, although he cautioned against taking money from the Education Fund, which pays salaries and benefits and buys teaching supplies.
On Friday, Taylor said district parents have overwhelmingly been supportive of drivers, even though "we made it tough on them today."
"It's tough on parents, we don't want to put them in that position," she added, saying she was grateful for the many private messages, texts and Facebook posts.
Hickam added he wasn't sure if any parents and students were caught unawares Friday morning that school was called off, but suspects some were.
He said he texted families about an hour after Thursday's meeting, when it became clear to school officials that Durham wasn't going to be able to staff enough buses on Friday to cover the walkout. He followed that up with another text and an email Friday morning.
The new contract will be the first one awarded by District 300 since 2012. That three-year contract went to Durham, and when it expired in 2015, the school board approved a series of one-year extensions. Those were years when school districts were unsure of how much state aid they would be getting, and the extensions saved the district money, Hickam said.
Taylor said she and the other drivers would love to continue driving for District 300. Already on Friday, she said, some drivers got calls from other student transportation companies, offering employment.
"I am super-attached to my Du Quoin kids," said Knapp.
"Every one of us wants to be there," she added. "We aren't just driving random kids, we know them by their names and we know their families."