The recent resignation of Cindy Button, the former school bus transportation coordinator for Westbrook, has exposed safety and structural concerns within the district that transports hundreds of children daily.

Button, who spoke to the American Journal about the situation in December, said her tenure in Westbrook was made difficult due to power-play issues within the transportation department – namely, with a lack of support from bus drivers, who were public in their support of two union-affiliated administrative assistants leading the department, at the time of Button’s hiring last June.

While that power play made her job difficult for the six months she was employed, Button’s resignation was prompted by an incident Nov. 18 that exemplified both her concern for safety and her inability to change established safety-related practices within the department.

“There were things that I felt were important, some that are law, that I was unable to fulfill,” she said.

Button’s statement should truly disturb all Westbrook parents who allow their children to be transported by bus to school.

There are other disturbing aspects to this situation. First, Button was one of only three state-certified transportation directors in Maine. That Westbrook lost such an individual is unfortunate, to say the least. Bus drivers should have welcomed the expertise brought by a state-certified director, and with the children’s best interests in mind, follow the rules as she prescribed.

Second, Button’s departure and subsequent American Journal attempts at seeking information about what instigated the resignation exposed the Nov. 18 incident. In the interview, Button said a bus driver, who had not engaged the parking brake at a bus stop, began accelerating with a 5-year-old child caught in the folding door while exiting the bus. If the driver had engaged the parking brake lever, located between the driver’s seat and the door, the driver would have seen that the student had yet to fully exit the bus, Button said. Fortunately for everyone involved, the child suffered only minor injuries. But the incident could have easily escalated into something tragic.

However, the event proved to Button that her ideas weren’t taking root in Westbrook. Button tendered her resignation effective Dec. 31 saying the November incident was “devastating” to her and “the last straw.” She also said that the resulting punishment given to the bus driver for the incident – paid administrative leave – was not as severe as she would have imposed.

In the wake of the incident, school leaders have met with all bus drivers to discuss proper safety procedures – especially applying the parking brake at all stops – and we applaud them for doing so.

We also believe school administration should have provided Button more support while she was dealing with the department. As she said, her job was doomed from the start, since drivers were in public support of someone else leading the department. Some kind of mediation and conflict resolution probably would have helped.

We also praise Button for going on record about the Nov. 18 incident, which school officials had refused to discuss, and talking about the department’s problems. Public officials – especially in this litigious world we live in – have a history of not discussing potentially damaging incidents, but doing so lets residents know what’s happening in their government and possibly helps to prevent future incidents.

The bottom line for schools is the safety of the children. Parents expect all school employees to have the best interests of the children in mind. Button was trying her best to improve safety within the department, saying safety “is at the top of the list.” And, obviously, the children should be the focal point.

With the board slated to hire department veteran Joan Harmon at its meeting Wednesday night, occurring after the American Journal’s deadline, we hope she maintains Button’s dedication to safety. Our children deserve nothing less.

–John Balentine, managing editor

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