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Las Virgenes Schools Cite Laidlaw ‘Chaos’

Times Staff Writer

Complaints that Laidlaw Transit has provided inefficient bus service in two Santa Clarita school districts mirror criticism of the company last spring by parents and officials in the Las Virgenes Unified School District.

Laidlaw’s service was so bad that Las Virgenes trustees decided not to renew a contract with the transportation firm in June, said Fred Wendt, the district’s assistant director of maintenance operations and transportation. “It was just a mess,” he said.

Although there were brief periods of good service, Laidlaw’s overall operation during the 1987-88 school year was in “total chaos,” he said.

Laidlaw school buses were often late and repeatedly left children standing at bus stops for 30 minutes or more, Wendt said. Sometimes, he said, buses never showed up.

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Laidlaw also had a chronic shortage of regular drivers and had to rely on substitutes unfamiliar with the Las Virgenes area, he said. Complaints from parents were common, he said.

Wendt’s comments echoed remarks by officials in the William S. Hart Union High School District, who gave Laidlaw representatives a dressing-down at a board of trustees’ meeting Tuesday night. Laidlaw is paid more than $1 million a year to transport 3,600 students in the Hart district and the Newhall School District.

Laidlaw--the largest school bus company in the state, with about 140 contracts in more than 80 school systems--was defended by some of its clients.

‘Not Encouraging’

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Spokesmen for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Long Beach Unified School District and Los Angeles County Office of Education said in interviews they are pleased with Laidlaw’s performance.

But in a memo to the Hart trustees, James Bown, director of support services for the Hart district, said the overall performance of Laidlaw “is not at all encouraging.”

Buses are late, entire runs are missed and a shortage of drivers--a problem since the start of school in September--still persists, Bown said. There have been times, he added, when the district’s bus yard has been without a dispatcher or safety-training officer.

As recently as Tuesday, Bown said, the terminal was short three drivers and four runs were 30 minutes or more late. One run was never made, he said. A dispatcher had to fill in as a driver, and the manager reported late for work, he said.

Since the district started making daily logs Oct. 26 to monitor Laidlaw’s efforts to correct the problems, 37 runs were late or entirely missed. “The situation is profoundly disturbing,” Bown wrote.

And on Nov. 1, Laidlaw failed to send a van to pick up three mentally handicapped students at special-education classes in North Hollywood and Pasadena, Bown said in an interview. A van finally picked up one of the students, a teen-age girl, more than 3 hours late, he said. The other two males, aged 19 and 20, were picked up by a parent, he said.

But Bown said the students, who waited on the campuses where their special-education classes were held, were in no danger.

Laidlaw officials pledged to resolve the problems and said they are attempting to recruit drivers from the Santa Clarita Valley familiar with the area. Company officials are scheduled to update the trustees Nov. 22.

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Hart Supt. Clyde Smyth said Laidlaw could lose its contract with the Santa Clarita school districts unless the company upgrades bus service quickly. It was the second such threat Laidlaw received in recent months.

James Kimble, assistant business director in the Riverside Unified School District, said his district came close to terminating its contract with the bus company this summer because buses were repeatedly late and drivers were unfamiliar with their routes.


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