The city’s bus drivers and fleet will remain in-house until at least 2013 after the School Committee last night unanimously approved a contract extension with the Local Union 1322.
The contract will reportedly save the district about $700,000 and its renewal ends uncertainty about the future of the district’s bus operations and whether it will be privatized — for now.
School Committee Member Andrea Iannazzi abstained from the vote because her father is the general manager of the laborers' union in Providence and Member Michael Traficante wasn't present for the vote.
Also not present was School Committee Member Steven Bloom, who was out of town on a business trip. Despite his absence, Bloom was the subject of some sharp criticism by his fellow committee members for a recent op-ed in the Cranston Herald in which he asked “why all the hurry?” for a vote and said the committee was “hastening to approve a contract extension” before completing a cost/benefit study on outsourcing transportation.
Bloom insinuated that some of his fellow committee members were willing to sacrifice the “long-term interests of Cranston” for “political or fiscal expediency.”
School Committee Member Frank Lombardi said there were “no side deals, nothing is going on other than we bargained in good faith with the transportation unit and we obtained the necessary concession we could.”
The because the analysis of existing bus operations and the potential savings from privatization has yet to be completed. That study is the job of a transportation subcommittee the School Committee formed in May after a lengthy and at-times emotional public hearing process that featured , an outside bus contractor that responded to a request for proposals, and the union. The committee began exploring privatizing the bus fleet after a City Council request.
Apparently the transportation subcommittee has met only once due to scheduling conflicts and Tropical Storm Irene and it is unlikely the report will be completed by the Dec. 31 deadline set by the committee. Meanwhile, the potential savings through a contract renewal with the Local 1322 was dwindling by the day. Those concessions were crucial to the school district balancing its budget since they were coded into the budget with the expectation that they would happen. That budget was approved by the City Council in May.
“School Committee person [Janice] Ruggeiri and I worked long and arduous hours in the negotiation phase with the transportation people and we had an edict from our fellow School Committee persons to go out there and get the concessions,” Lombardi said. “I’m ashamed one of us would go out on the frolic of their own and say some members of [the committee] are hastening to approve.”
Ruggeiri said the district has already lost savings by tabling the issue and will lose even more if the committee waited until December.
“We have lost holiday savings, we have lost benefit cost share savings, new hire savings, and that’s just in the last two weeks,” Ruggeiri said. “That’s significant dollar amounts and we can not afford to wait. What I do believe is if this contract gets ratified, we will have actual savings.”
The bulk of the savings from the union concessions come from health insurance co-pay increases, some coverage plans being dropped, two-year pay and step-increase freezes, reduction in holiday and sick days, among others.
School Committee Member Paula McFarland said the transportation subcommittee will step up its meeting schedule and get the cost/benefit analysis done, though it’s unlikely it will be completed by Dec. 31.
That means privatization is not completely off the table. And even if the committee opts to go with a contractor like First Student, it would take at least a year before the switch.
And the district still has to grapple with its aging bus fleet. First Student promised to invest more than $3 million for new buses as part of its bid. The district has yet to come up with a plan of its own, though it would likely apply for grants to offset some of the cost.
In responses to a city request for proposals, the union put in a bid of $7.2 million. First Student bid $5.9 million to operate Cranston's bus fleet.
The union outlined a series of First Unions problems and foibles during their pitch to the School Committee in May, arguing the busing conglomerate could not provide the quality of service local drivers currently provide.
Among the incidents — buses not delivered in Cincinnati, dirty buses in Indianapolis, frozen fuel lines in Stamford, Conn., failing to pay overtime in Baltimore, driver shortages in Buffalo and a town in Montana that actually paid First Student $575,000 to leave town so they could operate their own fleet.
“There’s got to be a value on that,” Arthur Jordan, the union's general manager said in May. “When you have longstanding employees that are part of your community that are dedicated to the job they do. There’s a value to that. It’s the School Committee’s job to decide the value of that. The safety of a child [is] priceless.”
First Student operates in 1,500 school districts across the U.S., according to their website. They transport 6 million students every day to and from school.