Unionville schools look to study bus privatization

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Members express concern about how the non-financial value of operating bus fleet, employing drivers will be measured
By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

While it is likely that outsourcing bus services to a private firm would save money, some Unionville-Chadds Ford school board members want to make sure that non-economic benefits of keeping it in house are measured in an upcoming study of the fleet.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — The school administration is taking the next steps in a process that could lead to the privatization of the Unionville-Chadds Ford district school bus fleet — although at this point, fact finding and looking for an independent source to do it seem to be the primary focus.

Gail Wolfel, the district’s director of transportation, spoke to the Board of Education Monday night during its work session about her draft version of a request for proposal to find an independent company to help the district determine the pluses and minuses of outsourcing the district’s school buses and drivers — or at minimum, finding ways to make the existing bus fleet operate more efficiently.

Once refined, that proposal is expected to go out in the coming weeks. The board will then review the potential applicants before any contracts are signed.

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker stressed that using an outside consultant on the matter would prevent any worries about internal bias and be able to give the board an independent point of view about the cost savings — and the potential losses both terms of operational control and quality of service.

The study is expected to cost at least $10,000 — although the district spends a total of $4 million annual on busing, $2.7 million of which is spent on district students, with the remainder used to transport students to private schools or specialized learning institutions.

Board member Frank Murphy expressed concerns about how to quantify the benefits of having the buses remain under district control.

“How are we going to evaluate the non-financial benefits?” Murphy asked. “I just don’t know how to do it. What’s it all worth having it house?”

Wolfel said that those considerations are built into the request for proposal, and that input from all those impacted, including students, parents, teachers, the drivers and so on will be part of the information gathering process in an attempt to fully capture those service factors.

Board member Holly Manzone questioned the need to take the process outside the district — suggesting that Parker and the rest of the administration could be trusted to generate accurate data.

Dr. Paul Price — who sparked the talk about privatizing bus services, along with custodial and food service workers — said that using in-house staff would be a “conflict of interest.

Timotha Trigg, the board’s president, agreed with Mazone’s support for the administration’s integrity but suggested that the appearance of a conflict is what the board needed to seek to avoid.

And district business manager Robert Cochran noted that even if the initial report doesn’t support privatizing the bus fleet, the improved efficiencies from an outside audit of the program would more than pay for the cost of the study.

In other school busing news, the district seems ready to except its usual rules about running a route on private roads — while the process of conveying the streets in the Riverside at Chadds Ford development in Pocopson drags on. Right now, the roads are still owned by Toll Brothers, the developers of the residential subdivision and are in the process of being turned over to the township.

Currently, students from the neighborhood either must wait along Route 52 or along Pocopson Road, forcing them to cope with, in some cases, long walks and exposure to large amounts of commuter traffic. Because of requests from parents in the area, Parker said she was prepared to look past the district’s usual reluctance to allow a route through what are technically private roads.

The plan is to alter three bus routes — and run through the neighborhood, changing the bus stop for most of the students in the neighborhood. Parker said she has been in email contact with the effected families and that she hopes to have the new routes running in a couple of weeks.

There’s no formal time line for the dedication — or turnover — of the roadways in Riverside, as the developer must meet a specific list of fixes and conditions before Pocopson will take over the roadways. As of now, that process likely won’t be complete until December and maybe into 2011.

One other bus-related development: the district will need to add a route in the Chadds Ford area because parents of high school students heeded the warnings of limited parking and drop off space at the high school due to the renovation project. Students were asked to take the bus if possible — and for this route, they have done do. While no route is strictly overcrowded, space is tighter than the district would like and with the heavy-coat season coming up, adding a bus route in the area will relieve overly tight conditions on the bus.

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