First Student made its pitch for privatization of Cranston’s school bus fleet during a public work session of the School Committee at on Monday night.
First Student, an American subsidiary of a global transportation company, was the lowest of three bidders who responded to a request for proposals, coming in at around $5.9 million per year, according to estimates noted by School Committee Member Frank S. Lombardi.
Before the meeting, about 100 protestors from the bus union, the fire union and members from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered outside the middle school in a show of support against privatization. Bus union members held signs that read “Save Our Jobs” and “Support Cranston School Bus Drivers.”
Inside, it took the members of the School Committee almost two hours to exit executive session, to the relief of an increasingly restless audience who were waiting for them in the auditorium.
Chip Johnson, director of business development for First Student, said their goal is to rehire all current drivers and aides and keep them driving the same routes. He said the company would place operations facilities on Plainfield Pike, at Park View Middle School and a maintenance facility in Warwick, on Jefferson Boulevard. These facilities would net the city an estimated $350,000 per year in property taxes, according to Johnson.
He said they would be investing $3.5 million on a new fleet, which would include no buses older than 2006. This investment would make a 10-year improvement over Cranston’s current bus fleet, according to Johnson.
As for security and safety, Johnson said each bus would be equipped with a video camera and a GPS system. The GPS system will provide reports on idle times and speeding. Also, the district would receive access to bus location reporting, historical data on routes and information on bus arrival times.
The digital video cameras in every bus would include a 160-gb hard drive allowing the city to record the bus environment for an extended period of time. The cameras, Johnson said, will not only help ensure employees are doing what they are supposed to be doing, but will also help to resolve student discipline incidents that take place on the bus.
School Committee Member Paula McFarland was particularly critical about First Student’s proposal.
She said First Student’s presentation and previous RFP response differed in the amount of money they were going to provide for new buses.
“You’re going to invest only $3.5 million,” said McFarland, “You’ve reduced it to $3.5 [from $3.8 million] and based upon that the city of Cranston gets $300,000, the city side gets $300,000, the school department gets zero and you’re making less of an investment than your RFP indicates.”
She then said she had never seen an RFP written with so many changes “whenever you feel like making them” in her career.
“You can’t decide you’re going to pick an orange, when you’ve already given us an apple,” she said.
Then she turned her focus to the safety issues.
“What policy or procedure, as I asked last time, do you have in place to protect our children?” asked McFarland, with a raised voice.
Johnson didn’t have an immediate answer, and McFarland reiterated the question about who is responsible for the students actions on the bus, “Who ultimately makes that decision, is it the school department’s responsibility, do you show us the pictures then say here you take care of it, do you make the decision, do you call the parents?”
After a brief discussion about the policy, School Committee Member Steven Bloom said he took exception to the tone of the discussion and later noted that “policies and procedures in place today with the current bus drivers” to deal with student discipline problems, “would be exactly the same under contract with First Student.”
“We were given copies of both the bullying and intimidation policy and the regulations for transporting school children… and we would abide by those policies,” said Johnson.
First Student's bid was about 33 percent lower than the two other companies that entered bids to privatize Cranston’s bussing system, according to figures noted by Lombardi. The other companies were Durham School Services and Dattco. Lombardi asked why that was.
Johnson said that because of First Student’s size it was able to come in with a bid significantly lower than their competitors.
First Student operates bussing for 18 school districts in Rhode Island and has operations in 49 states in the U.S., according to its RFP. The company is a subsidiary of First Group, which is based in the United Kingdom.
The School Committee was asked to review privatization as a request by the City Council.
Union members outside were not happy with the idea of privatization.
“The vast majority of these bus drivers and aides are Cranston residents with 15 to 20 years experience of delivering a safe environment,” said Arthur Jordan, general manager of the bus union, “[They] are committed to their jobs and willing to make sacrifices to keep their jobs.”
“We’re here in support of the bus drivers,” said Paul Valletta Jr., president of the Cranston firefighters’ union, whose members also gathered outside Western Hills protesting before the work session began.
“It has been proven that privatization’s numbers may work in the short-term, but not in the long-term,” said Valletta, “Usually the numbers are not what they really are.”
A request for information related to the cost of the school department operating the bus system during fiscal year 2009 to 2010 was rebuffed by school officials. They said because these numbers were the starting point of negotiations with the union that they would not be released.
Bloom said that privatization discussions would not be happening if they weren’t going to save a significant amount of money.
The bus union will present its proposal to the school committee during a work session on Wednesday, May 18.
“These employees will be prepared,” said Jordan, about the union’s presentation next week.