Unionville bus drivers ask questions about outsourcing

To the Editor:

In September, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District Board of Directors agreed to initiate a study to determine the feasibility of outsourcing student transportation services now performed by district employees with district-owned vehicles. The Board’s goal is to complete this study by February, 2011.

As employees of the Transportation Department of the UCFSD, we have a vested interest in the decisions of our Board regarding this possible outsourcing of bus services. Regardless, we understand the economics of today’s society and the pressures school boards are under to reduce costs and improve efficiencies.

We also understand the importance of and the responsibilities inherent with our job. The parents in our school district entrust us with the safety and well being of their most precious possessions, their children, each morning and afternoon. Most of us are long-term employees; many of us have driven the same route for years, seeing our kindergartners enter middle school and our middle-schoolers graduate high school; we know our students on a first-name basis; and their parents know us.

The UCFSD is very good to its employees. Like our teachers, transportation employees receive health benefits and contribute to and receive pension benefits from the state’s Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). However, unlike our teachers, transportation employees are not unionized so we have virtually no recourse in any outsourcing decision by our board. Whereas many current drivers would be offered employment with a new contractor, there is no guarantee, and some drivers may choose not to continue employment with a contractor. Therefore, this decision could result in our loss of, or significant increase in the cost of, health insurance; and since contract employees are not members of PSERS, our pension benefits would be frozen at current values.

It has been asserted by some that a contractor would provide a better quality transportation service, but what is the quality that one should expect from a school transportation service? What does quality look like? We at Unionville believe a quality school transportation service is one that picks up assigned students at a designated location at, or as close as possible to, an agreed upon time; transports its students safely to their assigned school and home again using pre-approved routes and obeying all traffic regulations; assures that the students obey the rules for proper bus behavior; and makes the ride enjoyable for the students, as we are the first employees to see them in the morning and the last at night.

Furthermore, quality at Unionville is a group of professional and skilled mechanics who respond to even the most minor vehicle problems in a timely manner and who keep our district-owned fleet of vehicles running safely and efficiently. Quality at Unionville is an office staff which optimizes our Unionville and non-public bus routes, maintains bus rosters and assigns students to stops convenient to their homes, responds to parents’ questions and concerns, resolves frequent on-the-road driver issues, manages driver training and recertification programs, and much more. Quality at Unionville is a staff of caring and compassionate bus and van aids that provides support and comfort to our passengers with special needs.

While we understand that most contract school bus and van drivers are careful and professional, the loss of employee drivers exposes school districts to greater unknowns. Note the following:

1. With students on board, a contract bus driver for the Perkiomen Valley School District was recently involved in a fatal accident at a middle school after running 10 stop signs, talking on a wireless head set and listening to music.

2. Earlier this year employees of contracted bus services were involved in a series of incidents in the Pittsburgh Public School District, including dropping a student off at an undesignated stop, twice failing to assure that all students were off a bus at night resulting in children being found sleeping in the contractors’ garages, and a DUI during a field trip.

3. A Montgomery County contract bus driver was recently sentenced to probation after a 2009 incident involving the luring of a 15-year old girl onto his bus which wasn’t her regular bus.

We feel confident that these types of events are less likely to occur at a district with a permanent staff of dedicated drivers.

It is also believed that a contracted service would save money due to lower employee expenses and simply because they are better managers of transportation – they know the business. This may be true to a degree. But what is the true cost of this savings, and what makes them better managers?

The assumption is that (intangibles such as supervisory skills, route efficiency, vehicle maintenance, safety, student logistics and parent satisfaction aside) a contractor is somehow able to provide the same service as an in-house team for less money. As long as the district spends less money on student transportation, the contractor is a better manager – that’s all that’s important. After all, he’s out to maximize his profits, so, naturally, he will run a less costly operation and, thus, charge the district less. Seems like a contradiction of objectives.

Initially, the district will realize a one-time windfall when the contractor purchases the fleet, and, altruist that he is, he will surely pay top dollar, just like any used-vehicle dealer. Then the district will rent back the vehicles as part of the contract. But, as we know, the contractor is in business to make money, so, over the long haul, he has to recoup his vehicle purchase costs from the rentals. Somebody has to make out better here, or the transaction makes no sense. Our guess is that it’s the contractor. Additionally, since he wants to minimize costs, will the vehicles be maintained to the same standards as was done by district personnel? Unfortunately, that’s one of those intangibles.

We all know the biggest savings with outsourcing comes from lower employee costs. Now we’ve come to the heart of the issue – obtain a contractor who will pay less overall for employee services than the district.

As we’ve stated, if UCFSD outsources transportation, most of the current drivers might be offered positions and at a pay rate comparable to their present wage. Of course, the district would be charged a profit markup on those wages. As part-time district employees, we receive no compensation over the summer. Contract personnel receive unemployment benefits over the summer; an expense that would be passed on to the district, plus profit.

The first real cost savings comes with PSERS. Anyone who’s paid attention to this issue over the past few months knows that school districts must make huge increases to their payments to the state fund in future years. By being able to lop off a significant portion of that commitment, the district lowers its exposure. But this savings may be a “wash” with the added employee costs resulting from the contractor mark-ups for profit and unemployment compensation, not currently a district expense.

Health care! We’re at the real bottom line of costs. With the news coverage of this issue over the past year or so, it needs little discussion. Suffice it to say, if the district can shed 80 employee’s worth of health care, so much the better. But, what about all those intangibles? Are the board and district parents willing to trade the intangibles for the value of 80 employee health benefits? If the answer is “yes”, end of discussion.

Unionville-Chadds Ford is the last district in Chester County with employee drivers and a district-owned fleet, which makes the transition to a contracted service seem inevitable. However, in Delaware County, which is also served by our district, most, if not all districts operate as Unionville-Chadds Ford does at present.

We trust the UCFSD Board to do a competent, thorough and un-biased analysis of the student transportation options. We also trust that any decision is not based strictly on bottom-line costs, but that consideration be given to the “intangibles” provided by a group of proud and dedicated employees.

Transportation Employees of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District

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