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Santa Clarita Schools : Districts Warn Laidlaw About Bus Complaints

Times Staff Writer

Santa Clarita school officials said Tuesday they are fed up with complaints of sloppy bus service and warned Laidlaw Transit that it is close to losing contracts with two school districts.

“If I sound hostile, then you believe it because I am,” said Clyde Smyth, superintendent of William S. Hart Union High School District.

Laidlaw, the nation’s largest school bus company, was hired 3 years ago to provide bus service for 3,600 students in the Hart district and the Newhall School District. The California Highway Patrol and the state Department of Education are investigating allegations by former Laidlaw employees that the company improperly trained drivers and that driving instructors falsified training records.

Smyth, who said he was also speaking for the Newhall district, Tuesday night angrily detailed what he said have been chronic deficiencies in Laidlaw’s service. He said that a shortage of bus drivers has produced unreasonable delays in bus service. He said that since Oct. 26, his district has kept daily logs of Laidlaw’s performance.

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Short of Drivers

Since that date, Laidlaw has been short of drivers 50% of the time and short of management personnel 80% of the time, Smyth said. As a result, the company has brought in drivers unfamiliar with the Santa Clarita Valley, the superintendent said.

Smyth also said that the company has been late or has missed entire runs 37 times since Oct. 26.

“This has gone on just too far,” agreed Gerald H. Heidt, a Hart district trustee.

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Laidlaw officials promised Smyth and the district trustees that the company will improve bus service as quickly as possible.

The company officials said that statistics released by the CHP grossly inflated Laidlaw’s accident record in the Hart and Newhall districts.

A CHP spokesman told state legislators at a hearing last week that Laidlaw’s combined school bus accident rate in the districts during the 1987-88 school year was 35.2 accidents per 1 million miles--almost four times the state average. Capt. Bill Kelley, commander of the Newhall CHP office, said the statewide average for the period was 9.2 accidents per 1 million miles.

But Dave Daley, vice president for operations of Laidlaw Transit, said the real accident rate was 18.9 accidents per 1 million miles. And the rate really translates to 15 accidents, he maintained.

Laidlaw officials reviewed accident records and found its employees had unnecessarily reported accidents that occurred when children were not present, Daley said. By law, he said, the company is only required to report accidents that occur when children are on board. During the last school year, 15 school bus accidents occurred with children aboard, he said.

Daley acknowledged that Laidlaw’s accident rate is still almost twice the state average. Inexperienced drivers and difficult turnabouts required on some bus routes were responsible for the high rate, he said.

Container Fell

In the most serious incident, a large container fell off a flatbed truck and splashed a caustic solution on 25 Newhall schoolchildren riding a bus in January. The children were taken to five hospitals, and 13 were treated for minor eye and skin irritation.

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The owner of the container, an electroplating company in Compton, was fined $10,250 in September for illegally transporting hazardous waste. The bus driver was not at fault, Daley said.

Two bus drivers were at fault, however, in two accidents, Daley said. In one, a bus sideswiped a car as the bus swung wide to make a right turn. In the other, a bus bumped a car as the bus was trying to pass. The accidents caused a total of $2,700 damage to the cars involved.

Three more accidents occurred as buses braked sharply to avoid collisions. In these accidents, Daley said, a few children were thrown to the floor or into the seats in front of them. The children were not hurt, he said.


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