Mom speaks out about bus delays in La Crosse

First Student spokesman said safety of students is a primary concern

Like any other school year, most school districts expect a few hiccups during the first week of school. However, the recent school bus delays in La Crosse have many concerned this is a bigger issue.

Since the story ran on Thursday, News 8 has received multiple comments and emails about the bus delays in La Crosse.

One mother said her son, who has a disability, was dropped off at the wrong spot, and she didn’t know where he was for almost an hour.

“I would go to the ends of the earth for him,” said Lorie Henkel.

Henkel and her son, David, 9, have a routine.

“David knows this is what time I get up, and this is what time the bus comes,” said Henkel.

Henkel said David functions between a 5-and 6-year-old level, so he takes the special needs bus to North Woods International Elementary every week.

This week was no different until David didn’t get off the bus.

“I thought someone took him. It’s like a sick horrific feeling that you can’t describe,” said Henkel.

Henkel said she immediately called the bus company, First Student.

“They had me on hold for 40 minutes,” said Henkel.

Without any luck, Henkel said she then decided to call David’s school, North Woods International Elementary, and found out he had been dropped off at Northside Elementary.

“David was out there, crying,” said Henkel. “I don’t ever want to experience what I just experienced.”

Henkel said this isn’t David’s first time riding a bus.

“Last year, his bus driver was wonderful,” said Henkel. “I don’t know what happened between this year and last year.”

A former bus driver for First Student might have the answer. For the past 7 or 8 years, Todd Miller has been a bus driver for First Student.

“I was doing the Emerson, Central, Summit kids for about four years,” said Miller.

But he decided to quit his job just this past week.

“I didn’t like how the company was handling the new routing system,” said Miller.

Miller said it takes time to get used to the route, the kids, their families and the schools.

“You build relationships with them,” said Miller.

So a recent change to routes just didn’t make sense to him.

“You have a certain amount of veteran drivers who know their route, and they don’t have to be on dispatch,” said Miller. “Now with the routes changed and everything, everyone needs help at the same time, and if they can’t get on the radio, then they call on the cellphone.”

“It’s something that is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Henkel.

News 8 received a statement from a First Student spokesman who said, they understand the new routes are problematic, and they are working to solve them.

The company said safety and security of students is a primary concern. The local First Student manager has been removed from his position and replaced with an interim manager. The Wisconsin general manager for First Student will be in La Crosse until the issue is resolved, and the company has also brought in experienced drivers from other locations to help.        

The School District of La Crosse is in its third year of a five year contract with the bussing company but has used them for many years before this most recent contract.

La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson said he isn’t sure if the recent problems will have an impact on the contract, but he said right now, the focus is on fixing the issues at hand.

“It does lead into questions about the contracts and what decisions we may make in the future about the contract, but we are going to worry about that in a few weeks. Our main concern, right now, is to make sure we get our routes stabilized,” said Nelson.

First Student builds the routes for the School District of La Crosse. Nelson said the district simply provides the database that includes who needs to be picked up and where they need to be dropped off.

If anyone has concerns about a child’s specific bus route, the district encourages them to call First Student bus company directly at 781-3880 or 781-3881. The district also encourages parents to let the school district know of any problems, so they can keep track of any issues as well.