Cranston Won't Privatize School Bus Fleet

The task now is to replace the district's aging bus fleet.

The Cranston School Committee on Monday voted to reject an offer from school bus giant First Student to privatize its bus fleet, ending a years-long review process and signaling a commitment to keep busing — and the local union — in-house.

School Bus Union Local 1322 General Manager Arthur Jordan said after the meeting that he felt vindicated and was happy with the vote after a process that went on for four years, unnerving school bus drivers, workers who fix the buses and everyone else involved in the transportation of Cranston school children. 

"I'm happy with the vote. It makes for a nice holiday for my members. Job security is a good thing to have," Jordan said. "We all heard the numbers — it's a smart vote. It's not like the [School Committee] decided this overnight. It was a long time coming."

Committee members were swayed by two major arguments, the first based on a desire to keep pay and benefits steady for bus drivers and union members who live in Cranston. Multiple committee members said happy bus drivers are safe bus drivers and that in turn keeps children safe.

The other argument revolved around money and savings, or lack thereof. 

Cranston Schools Chief Financial Officer Joe Balducci told the School Committee that the union's proposal to keep busing in-house would cost the district $2.6 million less than going with First Student. And that's assuming rates wouldn't increase once the contract came up for renewal in five years.

But the "yellow elephant in the room," to quote School Committeewoman Janice Ruggieri, is the district's aging bus fleet. With an average age of 12 to 14-years, Cranston's buses are old and many have hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer. First Student promised to replace the entire fleet as part of its deal.

But by keeping busing in-house, the city will have to foot the bill for bus replacement itself, and that could cost upwards $3.6 million, according to a report by Director of Plant Operations Joel Zisserson.

That cost would be staggered over several years with the district buying about 10 large and 14 small buses per year over the course of seven years, phasing out the oldest vehicles in the fleet with buses that are anywhere from 2- to 7-years-old. 

Though the district will get savings by buying buses in bulk, and sticking with the union will cost less than switching to First Student, keeping the fleet in-house will cost more than privatizing based on the need to replace the bus fleet by about $1 million when everything is added up.

For the majority of School Committee members, it's worth it.

"Our Cranston bus company as we call it has a long history of safety," said Committeewoman Stephanie Culhane. "We know the safety record of our company and we know the people who run it. It's not a corporate entity. It's people who live and work in Cranston."

Culhane said if something needs to be taken care of last minute, local officials can pick up the phone and know exactly who to call to get it done. There's no corporate bureaucracy and red tape to cut through. And local workers, at some point, need to be taken care of.

"Our bus drivers need to be able to afford to live with us," Culhane said. "They shop in our shops, they are our community members and we need to make sure they're taken care of. This [First Student] contract does not take care of my neighbors."

Ruggieri said that she was concerned if the district entered into a contract with First Student and then after a few years, rates were jacked up and "suddenly we're responsible for paying this exorbitant bill and we'd have nowhere else to go."

First Student was the only company to respond to the district's request for proposals and eliminating its own bus fleet would essentially marry the district to First Student forever, Ruggieri said.

"We'd have nowhere else to go, then we'd be starting over from scratch in a larger hole than I think we'd care to put ourselves in," she said.

School Committee Member Trent Colford said he favored privatization and was concerned the decision to keep busing in-house could prove to be a costly one. 

"You have to look at the whole pie whenever we make decisions," he said, noting that the bus fleet needs replacement, elementary and middle school music still has not been brought back, there's a $26 million unfunded pension liability and other financial pressures still grip the district.

Colford recalled one of his first School Committee meeetings after the 2012 election when former Superintendent Peter Nero was retiring. 

Nero was given a lot of accolades for devoting his entire career in Cranston, spanning more than 30 years.

"He walked away after those years with accolades and his pension and on the same night we had a few brand new teachers and I wonder in 2046 when those teachers go to retire after giving their whole entire lives and careers — will they have their pensions? What will their pensions look like?" Colford asked.

"It's not fair to anybody whose given their whole career if we didn't do the right thing to take care of them," he said.

Other committee members pushed back, saying Colford's suggestion that the committee was rushing its decision ignored the more-than four years of debate on the topic that predated his election to the committee. 

"I know this is new to you, but we've sat on this stage and been through this before," said School Committee President Andrea Iannazzi, who voted in favor of keeping the bus fleet. 

Iannazzi said she was cleared to vote by the state Ethics Commission because her father, the former head of the Local 1033, has been retired since the end of 2012.

The argument that First Student might not cut wages doesn't hold water, Iannazzi said, because "it drastically alters their benefit package and they'd be losing wages at the end of the week because they'd be paying almost half of their cost share."

"I believe by rejecting this RFP and going back to negotiations with the laborers union we will find a deal that works for the union and employers," Iannazzi said.

The committee also took turns flagellating themselves over not addressing the bus fleet problem sooner, with several members saying it's something that previous School Committees should have thought about.

"It's a shame, a shame on this committee and a shame on the prior committees and a shame on the city and all of us for not recognizing this as an issue that was going to haunt us for years to come," Ruggieri said.

School officials will likely turn to the city for help replacing its fleet, whether by asking for money in its annual appropriation from the city come budget time, or other measures, such as already-approved bond money that hasn't been floated.

Jordan said the city "needs to help" with the paying for new buses and it's "clearly a better investment," suggesting the city can take advantage of having a bus fleet, not just the schools.

"One thing nobody mentions is — we've had flooding problems in Cranston. Isn't it good to own your own fleet for evacuation?"

Jonathan Keith December 10, 2013 at 07:56 AM
2.6 million less? Is that including the cost of the new buses needed? Does that also include projected pensions paid to employees as they retire? If so then great!! But I would have to see that broken down to believe it... It's about 70-100k per bus...
nicole fine December 10, 2013 at 08:04 AM
Maybe all the administrators who just received "salary adjustments" would be willing to kick in and return the money to get new busses. Why are the bus drivers and others more important to the community than the lunch program? When was the last time ANY school committee member ate the swill Sodexo is serving the kids? Those people are your neighbors, members of your community, etc., but you they had no problem privatizing that group. You are not in the business of transportation, get your priorities in order!!
Jonathan Keith December 10, 2013 at 08:07 AM
They are not in the business of teaching either... The less government is involved the better off we are!! Privatize the whole thing!! And Sodexo is terrible!!! Compass-group is the way to go!!
Bob December 10, 2013 at 08:46 AM
No big surprise here !!!! Too many Aunt, Uncles, Nephews, Brothers and sisters of Union hacks and who knows who that would lose jobs if First Student came in...Cranston is no different than the goobers in the state house...we wonder why we stink !!!!! Recommend


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