By LISA KERNEK
Springfield's school bus company is doing a lousy job, School Superintendent Bob Hill said Monday.
"We're paying more for a product that wasn't very good to start with, and frankly school districts don't have a lot of options," Hill said at Monday's school board meeting. "There's not a lot of players in this marketplace, and I'm real concerned about it."
Hill was responding to complaints from a parent about the bus company, Laidlaw Transit, that were published in Saturday's State Journal-Register. Hill said he had talked to the same parent, Richard Cohen, earlier Monday.
Cohen said his daughter's bus to Franklin Middle School has been late every week for the whole school year - an assertion the bus company disputes.
" I happen to agree with this parent. I happen to think the quality of the service we get from Laidlaw is not very good," Hill told the school board Monday night. "The thing that surprises me is that we don't have more parents complaining."
Late buses affect every school in the district at one time or another, Hill said, and there is a recurring problem with activity buses after school.
Hill said the district has no formal records documenting complaints, but he said "the concern of principals for the quality of bus service this year was probably the most agitated in any year that I've been in the district."
Busing costs went up 20 percent in the first year of the district's current contract with Laidlaw.
The manager of Springfield's Laidlaw office could not be reached Monday night.
But in an interview last week, manager Leroy Young said the company suffers from the same chronic shortage of drivers that has affected bus companies across the country. He said the company has a difficult time attracting drivers who are felony-free, drug-free and willing to work the odd hours.
On Monday, Hill acknowledged the driver shortage.
But he said he's met with Laidlaw officials three or four times this year to try to reach a solution and "can't get their attention."
Hill suggested that parents who have a complaint about bus service call the school district's transportation director, Rick Koopman, at 525-3096.
In other news Monday:
The general contractor is Jones-Blythe Construction of Springfield.
Construction is scheduled to begin in April, weather permitting, and to be finished in time for the school to open in fall 2000.
The district decided to build a new school after abandoning plans to renovate Hay-Edwards School at Pasfield Street and Lawrence Avenue.
School officials are trying to sell Hay-Edwards to pay for site work for the new school.
If they don't sell it, Hill said, the district may sell three other parcels of land to raise the money.