This time, it was a sea of yellow shirts. Yellow shirts filled the Methacton High School’s LGI Room on Tuesday night as the Methacton School Board met to discuss transportation contracts for the district. Up for debate was the five-year contract offered by First Student, Inc. [FS] for the period of July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2019.
Speaking to a packed house, Dr. David A. Zerbe asked the school board to approve a new transportation contract. which would outsource the department, making employees no longer a part of the district. Instead, they would be permitted to reapply for jobs with FS, which promised to grandfather wages and continue seniority of drivers.
In a full presentation at the board’s previous meeting, FS explained its transition process, policies and what technologies and buying power the national organization would bring to the table. A full account of the presentation was reported by LP TAP here.
After much discussion, at the end of the night it was the lack of one rather crucial item that caused the school board to vote to table the decision for a later date. The problem? No school board members were given a copy of the contract. In short, the administration was asking that, pending solicitor’s review, the board approve a contract they had not in fact seen.
“This evening, Mr. [Stuart] Whiteleather is going to present an overview of the process, some of the benefits for the recommendation, and then follow up with opportunity for board members to ask questions. Following that, we will open floor to public comment and questions.”
Whiteleather, the districts director of business services, proceeded to outline the benefits of hiring FS, the lowest bidder of four the school board received after a Request for Purchase (RFP) was sent out in September of 2013.
Whiteleather said, both verbally and via PowerPoint slides, that the reasons the school district needed to seek to outsource included:
· PSERs (pension funds)
· Capital Needs
· Operation Cost
PSERs, or the pension costs the district pays for its employees, is schedule to increase around 30 percent in coming years. A fact that a resident later pointed out might be a tad misleading, as the state of Pennsylvania reimburses the district half of those costs.
“Capital needs; We recognize that the fleet we have right now, and recognize a state reimbursement,” said Whiteleather, who noted that when buses are newer, the state kicks in more reimbursement to the district. “Most import is the age of our vehicles, and to get that down to the maximum age of 10 years. For our district to do that, we’d have to incur a $1.8 million to replace buses over next five years.”
Whiteleather said the cost of technology additions FS brings to the table also helps to save the district money.
“Technology alone has increased by 6.77 percent in the last 12 years,” he said.
At the end of the day, Whiteleather told the board and the public that an estimated $4.9 million would be saved over the term of the five-year contract by going with FS.
Board member James Phillips asked how much of the current fleet would need to be replaced.
“We have 95 vehicles presently,” said Whiteleather. “The contract RFP would replace 72 of those over 5 years. The average age of vehicles replaced would be 16 years of age, while under contract, FS replaces buses at an average age of 9 to 10 years.”
Board members also asked how the newly contracted company might interact with the district, to remain in communication.
“The district will maintain transportation supervisor and administrator,” explained Whiteleather. “First Student will have on-site manager that will communicate directly with our transportation supervisor on any issues that would require resolution.”
FS representative Jim Woods agreed, noting that the change-over is something the company has done before.
“What Stuart said is correct,” said Woods. “It is a seamless process, we’ve done it in many of our school districts, where our staff is co-located with district staff.”
When it came to questions of maximum bus ride time or policies for special needs students, the FS representative said that the company always abides by school district policy. Those items would be decided upon by the board and followed by and carried out by FS employees.
Zerbe also noted that current bus routes should stay the same.
“We anticipate a district manager that will be responsible for routing,” said Zerbe. “We do not anticipate our routes will change.”
As he explained the technology available, a crowd reaction was hard to miss as Woods described ZPass system the company has at its disposal.
“One of the new exciting things in technology is the ZPass,” said Woods. “It ties into our Zonar GPS as a student-tracking component. There is an RFID card that each student carries, and that checks them in when they get on or off the bus. The district would have access to that.”
Zerbe reassured concerned parents present at the meeting that the board has not yet decided if they should or will use these features.
“All of this technology referred to is a part of the proposal, however, the district still needs to make a final determination if and when the technology gets rolled out. We need to bring more people to the table before we make those decisions for what it is, and what it can possibly do. It could open doors for more information to alert parents or students that the bus might be five minutes behind. We have not made a decision on how to implement things, if we choose to do that, we can move forward at that time with the process.”
Other aspects such as outfitting all vehicles with video cameras or audio recordings would be included in the FS price.
After the board’s questions, the public was invited to ask questions or voice concerns. Topics such as how insurance would be handled (the district would be a named as a covered party) to whether they’d sell the entire fleet (it is not yet known as the board could sell all, sell some or not) were addressed one by one.
Joe Ferraro, of Lower Providence Township, said he had concerns about the board’s decision to outsource.
“You are going to turn around and say in the analysis of $4.9 million [savings], which you strangely analyzed toward these guys [referencing FS representation in the audience],” said Ferraro. “We are going to end up spending more money to give away jobs, pay-cuts for these people [drivers]. You pay less; you get less. You will put these people through the ringer, when we could do this in house.”
Ferraro asked the board to consider keeping drivers as paid district employees.
“We have the intelligence to do this inside the Methacton Family,” he said. “Let’s not rake our employees over this to say ‘we know the place of everything and the value of nothing.’”
John Andrews of Lower Providence jokingly asked if the RFID technology would be “something the child carries or something implanted in the child’s body,” joining many that said they would be completely against such tracking devices.
Joe Bickleman, an Audubon resident and former Colonial School District CFO, asked why, if the district is in a financial situation, would there not be more “shared pain.”
“I’ve been in this business for over 35 years,” said Bickleman. “When there is a budget crisis in a district, where you are actually out of money or running low on money, you see something we call a ‘shared pain.’ It is something that permeates through the district. There are no raises, and you’ll have cutbacks in the budget across the district.”
Bickleman said that situation does not show in Methacton.
“In this district, we offer up financial human shields, for example our food service department, and next on the list is transportation,” he said. “This is in light of teacher raises of three percent for three years, and less contributions to their benefits.”
Whiteleather said that only “Me Too” clauses would have caused lesser contributions, meaning whatever teachers got, Teamsters were adjusted in addition to MSPA support staff.
Bickleman also noted that he did not feel all sides were presented, asking FS representatives about a situation in Darby borough where a driver dropped children along busy highways instead of designated routes.
“We haven’t heard the Yin and the Yang, we just heard the Yin,” he said.
First Student’s Randy Williams said that the driver, a substitute for the route, was actually a “utility person” but that all FS staff is trained and licensed to drive bus.
“We were just as outraged as you,” Williams said of the incident in Darby, which occurred March 2014. “This driver chose to not only disregard his training and our policies but state and federal regulations.”
The driver in question was sent to prison after failing to post bail at an arraignment.
By the night’s end, many questions still did not have answers. A motion was first made by Board Member Kim Woodring, which she later withdrew, to vote on the contracts. After a second by Maria Shackelford, it was School Board Member Brenda Hackett that asked the question and proposed a tabling of the topic.
“There is not a contract attached yet. There aren’t any costs or any deliverables. You want us to approve a contract, but there is no contract,” said Hackett.
As another resident noted, as well, three board members were not present at Tuesday night’s meeting. Mark O’Neill, Joyce E. Petrauskas and Herbert Rothe were all absent from the special meeting, leaving only six of the nine board members to vote.
School board member Cathleen Barone echoed Hackett’s comments.
“I do agree, this needs to be tabled,” she said. “More discussion needs to happen. We are in the business of education, and that is what we need to think about, that this is a business we are all in. We have more questions. Someone mentioned we are six here tonight, not nine. We need more people and more time. I don’t think it needs to take all summer, and maybe it is only two more weeks, but we need to table this so that more questions can be answered and we can have more apples to apples comparison.”
A vote of the board passed Hackett’s motion to table 4-2. Phillips, Woodring, Barone and Hackett voted to table, while School Board President S. Christian Nascimento and board member Maria Shackelford voted against it.