Who's Really First? - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Who's Really First?

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

Busing students is one of the most important -- and most expensive -- responsibilities of a school district. It's also frequently a controversial issue with complaints of missed pickups and wrong drop offs. First Student claims to be the largest busing company in the nation, and the company provides services to Waterloo Community School District.

First Student is the focus of much criticism in Waterloo, including a former manager who pleaded guilty to record tampering earlier this month and multiple reports of children going missing for a time after being dropped at the wrong stop.

"It's terrifying because I've never been in a situation like this before. And I hope I never have to be again, or anyone else," said Lestly Spencer, a mother whose kindergarten daughter was dropped off at the wrong stop two days in a row this year.

Waterloo schools provided us with dozens of complaints from the past year. Some, you'd hear no matter what company operated the bus. But others are clearly more serious -- from parents, and even teachers, concerned for the safety of their children.

Several bus drivers themselves told us, they were concerned. And, until a few weeks ago, they had no faith in their management team to correct the problems.

"There was no manager. We had an individual, who called himself a manager, but things were in total disarray," said Dale Wille, a driver in Waterloo.

This past June, the Board of Education was preparing to extend First Student's contract for another year. Then, local bus manager Terry Dykstra turned himself in to police, admitting to tampering with safety records.

"He hurt Waterloo schools almost irreparably when he did that," Superintendent of Waterloo Community Schools Dr. Gary Norris said.

With five weeks left before the start of school, the Board of Education was forced to decide -- quickly -- whether to contract with a different bus company. The superintendent and bus drivers believe, a change at that point would likely have resulted in chaos. So the district stayed with First Student for one more year, under strict guidelines.

"We told First Student the only way we would contract with them again was with a different manager," Norris said. "We always expect a quality product and them to uphold their contract. And we knew that the key would be the manager they hired."

This is an important point Norris brings up -- one that was supported by other superintendents we talked with. The company in charge may not matter as much as who runs things locally.

After a few weeks with an interim manager, First Student officially hired Kevin Casey. He's new to driving a bus, but has 35 years of experience managing transportation fleets.

"I enjoy challenges. I've never failed anything I've done in my life. And this is, it's a major challenge. And I'm up for it," Casey said.

Casey started by hiring a new safety manager and shop supervisor, and set out to bring every bus up to state code.

"My philosophy is, if it's your child, or your grandchild, and they're not going to be safe on that bus -- I don't want to see that bus leave the yard," he explained.

He's also put himself on call 24 hours a day for the district and for parents.

"If we email him or call him about a problem, I have total confidence that he's going to address it immediately. I didn't always have that in the past," Norris said.

"It's probably 95 percent better than it was. And if you think it's such a short period of time, from the past manager to now...well miracles do happen. And this is one of them, I'll tell you right now," Wille added.

But is it enough to reverse the damage? That remains to be seen.

"The real question we're going to have to ask, 'Did parents and did our community lose so much trust in First Student with these other events that happened, that they're not willing to give them a second chance?" Norris said.

"We have to take small steps. And we're taking those steps. And we still have a ways to go -- but I feel like we're moving in the right direction," Casey said.

The contract for busing services will go out for bids in December, and the board is expected to make a decision before the end of February. That means Casey has just a few more months to prove himself -- but he says, he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think it was for the long haul.

Regardless of what the Board of Education decides, the people behind the wheel won't change much. The drivers all belong to a local union, and many have been driving for Waterloo schools for decades.

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