Board urges First Student to get rid of bad drivers

by: MOLALLA POLICE OFFICER CURTIS THORMAN - The driver of this Molalla school bus was cited after the bus rammed into a car on Molalla Avenue last week.Kay Hemstreet, regional supervisor for First Student, was called to task before the Molalla River School Board Thursday following another Molalla school bus crash last week, the fifth accident in two years.

First Student has a contract with the Molalla River School District to supply bus transportation for students.

Hemstreet said First Student has not found a root cause for the accidents, but that the company would start providing four-hour training classes and two-hour defensive driving classes for Molalla bus drivers immediately.

“Above anything, the safety of the children is of number-one importance,” Hemstreet said. “The current situation isn’t normal for first Student or First Student of Molalla. I believe in our drivers and the community and our partnership with the school district. Failure is not an option.”

Dissatisfied with Hemstreet’s report, board members called to her attention recent accidents caused by bus drivers’ using “aggressive driving” techniques and making faulty decisions.

Board member Mark Lucht told Hemstreet he assumed the five accidents in two years seen in Molalla might seem unusual to her, but asked, “wouldn’t that tell you something about the people who are drivers here?”

Board member Liz Cruthers told the First Student supervisor, “I can’t express very nicely how concerned and frustrated I am with the lip service from First Student. What you are telling us sounds like the same thing we have heard from you before -— that you will ramp up training.”

Cruthers said if First Student can’t find a root cause for the problem, that means the supervisors need to take a closer look at what is going on in the Molalla bus barn.

“Something is wrong with the leadership at the Molalla bus barn that needs to change,” she said. “How about if all the parents concerned call your phone number.”

I’ve seen the responses to parents from the bus barns, and they are lacking,” Cruthers said. “I’m concerned with having my own daughter ride First Student buses. The bottom line is you have to fix this. I want to know specifically what you are doing to improve drivers’ performance.”

Hemstreet said she will “personally” take on the local management of First Student bus drivers. “I will be out here helping with this situation,” she said. “ I’ll be there as long as needed, so drivers can talk to me. I will look at bus stops and make sure they are safe.”

Board members questioned accountability for bus driver mistakes, citing a problem with “aggressive drivers,” and asked what Hemstreet would do about it.

She said First Student supervisors can “look at the drivers’ G.S. and see if they were speeding” at the time of their accidents.

Mark Lucht said he knows what motivates safe behavior, and training doesn’t.

“My concern with the attitude you’ve shown tonight is that it’s all about training — it’s all the drivers’ fault. But this is about leadership,” he said. “When you look at a driver with 15 years experience having accidents — what are the positive or negative influences on that driver as they go out to work? If that is not addressed, I’m not sure our kids will be safe.”

Hemstreet replied that First Student drivers “care about the kids” and want to go to work. “But you are right,” she said. “How do we project them wanting to come to work? I will definitely work with the Molalla group.”

Board member Calvin Nunn expressed frustration with how he is treated by Molalla bus barn employees when he calls to check on the safety of his children when they have not been picked up at the bus stop on time or were passengers on a bus he knew had just been in an accident.

“The things I’ve read in the paper about the buses in an accident — I called the bus barns three times and was blown off,” Nunn said. “What I wanted to hear last time was where my kids are now -- and they did not know.

“What good is GS (in the school bus) if the drivers don’t communicate?” he asked Hemstreet. “The issue is knowing where my kids are and knowing they are safe. The bus driver missed my kids — and it was that same bus driver who took out the power pole. My kids had been on that bus.

“So the bus driver in yesterday’s accident (at Shirley Street and Molalla Avenue) — I found that inexcusable,” he said. “That driver pushed his way into traffic and hit a car.”

Linda Eskridge said the school district should get rid of First Student as a provider of bus transportation.

“I feel we should be looking elsewhere for transportation than from First Student, Eskridge said. “There’s been too many accidents.”

Nunn agreed. “Turning around a bus on Vick Road and ending in up a ditch — that’s not a road to try to turn a bus around on — what is going on?” he said. “When we see bus drivers screwing up and nothing is done about it, the other drivers think you don’t care, and that is wrong.”

Neal Lucht said, “We need to get to the root cause. There seems to be a culture there about not passing on information. Every time something is wrong, that information should go straight to the supervisor. And that’s not happening,” he said. “The truth is, those drivers who drive aggressively and make mistakes like what happened this week make everyone else look bad. If you don’t get rid of these bad drivers, it gives the message that you don’t care.”

Hemstreet said if the board is calling for repeat-accident school bus drivers to be fired, that might or might not happen.

“What I am hearing is that we should have aggressive drivers and those drivers causing accidents terminated,” she said. “And I will look into these issues, but we have a progressive discipline. If the driver has an accident, it gets written up. If they have two or three accidents, the driver may be suspended. It depends on how bad the accident is. But they could possibly be terminated.”

Cruthers said she was not impressed with Hemstreet’s response.

I’m not feeling assured you will change things, Cruthers said. “Neal is soft spoken, but he does this for a living. You have a culture problem. It’s management. There’s something going on in the bus barns that needs changing now.

We can’t go out to the parents and say First Student says they will train — what good is that? We need hard and fast answers and we need to see things change.

Mark Lucht agreed. “I don’t want the same results,” he said. “I want to see new action taken.”

Board Chairman Ralph Gierke demanded that Hemstreet show up at the next board meeting with her boss in tow. He said by then, First Student management would have had enough time to evaluate what is going on and what they will do to fix it.

“The attitudes of people with direct contact — it’s everyone in your organization — people deciding on new busses or relationships with management, that’s where I see the issue,” he said. “Training is blame going to the drivers. I don’t think that’s the answer.”

The board unanimously passed a motion to require First Student regional and corporate supervisors to give a report at the next work session on Feb. 27, providing work plans and improvements, and further, to have the superintendent consult with the school district attorney regarding legal and liability ramifications and the contract with First Student.

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