Panel hears pros, cons to contracting school buses
In October of 2011, the Cranston School Committee voted to keep busing in-house and maintain a contract with Local Union 1322 to keep buses, drivers and monitors as employees of the Cranston school district.
Fast-forward to Nov. 5, 2013 and a special public work session of the School Committee where the only item on the agenda was a discussion of the RFP for transportation. The auditorium was packed with bus drivers, aides and monitors, all nervous about their job future in the district.
Currently, the district employs 81 bus drivers, 45 monitors and 35 bus aides.
"A bus monitor ensures the students get on and off the bus safely. They are assigned to elementary and middle school bus runs. A bus aide is either on a special needs bus or kindergarten runs. The bus aides receive teacher assistant training in how to deal with the special needs population," said Ray Votto, COO of the District.
According to Votto, in the case of a field trip, monitors and aides do not go but if a child has a 1-1 teacher assistant, that person would have to go along and it is part of their workday.
Aides are represented by the teachers union; bus monitors are not unionized.
"The buses are registered under Cranston Public Schools. They are insured by the district’s insurance carrier and are reflected as assets in the district’s annual audit report," said Joe Balducci, CFO for the district.
The first speaker was Director of Business Development for First Student Chip Johnson. He presented their proposal of what they could offer the district, from new buses to job security for drivers.
"We would start immediately with replacing the entire fleet of buses for the 2014 school year. It is a $6.5 million investment. The new buses would have cameras, radios and GPS systems," he said.
First Student would also make a $427,000 payment to the state for sales tax on the fleet.
"We also would be making over a $1 million payment to the city of Cranston in property tax. We would replace the current Fletcher Avenue location for storing buses and move it to the lot at Park View paying $10,000 in rent annually. These investments are for the general good," he said.
According to Balducci, there are currently 90 buses in the school fleet, including spares. The buses range in age from 1995 to 2003.
"Please understand that even though the fleet is aged, they meet all inspection guidelines to constitute a safe vehicle. Each bus must pass mandatory state inspections twice a year. Also, each bus is visually inspected by the driver on a daily basis [pre-trip inspection] and inspected on a weekly basis as well," Balducci added.
Johnson said, "First Student will offer jobs to all current Cranston employees who apply and pass the process; they would maintain their seniority sequence, there would be a pay increase, First Student would recognize Local 1322 as the union of record. We also will provide seven full-time employees, three technicians, implement a computerized routing system, eventually eliminating several routes."
If the School Committee approves the First Student proposed contract, they would go ahead and order the new bus fleet to start school year 2014-2015.
First Student based their pricing on providing 44 regular bus routes, 35 for special education, 19 kindergarten routes and 12 midday kindergarten routes. This would be exclusive of field trips or sports.
"The number $6.839 million is a fixed price for five years. We meet all the bid requirements. Remember in 2017-18, you will have a four-year-old fleet. We will train your technicians on the newer buses. There is no guarantee the district can find acceptable used buses," Johnson said.
Ward 2 representative Stephanie Culhane commended Johnson on the quality of the presentation. Acknowledging its comprehensiveness.
"You list CEOs, presidents and other titles, everyone involved in our operation is here. There are no corporate hoops to jump through to get things done. I want a fair living wage for our employees," she said.
Culhane commented on the lack of salaries or benefits included. "Are these items offset by health care costs? We need to know this information in black and white before I can entertain considering this offer," she said.
Balducci said they would use a five-year period to replace the entire fleet.
"We would purchase newer used buses, spending $35,000 on larger buses and do lease-to-own in 2014 on smaller buses," he said.
Ward 5 representative Janice Ruggieri addressed the issue of monies lost if employees do not stay with the district.
"We are looking at a $488,000 pension withdrawal penalty. Other expenditures we will have to come up with money for is the one-time payouts for vacations and sick days if First Student employees leave the district," she said.
Ruggieri felt there was conjecture in claimed savings by First Student.
"We are using actual figures, we are in a better position to estimate future costs," she said.
Arthur Jordan, general director for Local 1322, emphasized the trend of “going local” during his PowerPoint presentation. "Cranston is a trend-setter. Always ahead of its time. I say go local, stay local, invest in our community," he said.
Jordan talked about the morale of the bus drivers.
"Your employees are living under a dark cloud. Their sacrifices resulted in surpluses. They are dealing with daily anxiety; these employees work hard every day," he said.
During the PowerPoint presentation, Jordan showed how Cranston mechanics transformed an older school bus into a sander/plow utilized by the school department.
"Remember, these buses will be owned by First Student. The December debacle of six years ago when those Providence students were stranded on busses for hours. Where were Cranston's kids? Home, safe and in bed," he said.
Jordan reiterated the importance of keeping the jobs within the district at the end of his presentation.
"Remember, if a job is worth doing, do it yourself. You will be saving $3.5 million over the next five years. Be proud of the job we do, do not eliminate it," Jordan said.
At the end of the session, Superintendent, Dr. Judith Lundsten commented on the jobs the bus drivers do.
"Our drivers are the first eyes on the streets. We must acknowledge they help to keep our neighborhoods safe," she said.
Email requests to the School Committee and central administration went unanswered as to where the funding would come from for the district to replace buses, as well as the timeframe to resolve this issue.