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Penn Hills parents vent frustration over busing

Much led to decision to outsource

Penn Hills School District officials had touted the move to First Student as a way to save money, which is happening, said the district's business director, Richard Liberto.

In 2010-11, the transportation budget was $6.29 million, including $4 million in salaries and benefits for the former union drivers, Liberto said. In the 2013-14 budget, the budget is $5.1 million, $4.3 million of which goes toward salary and benefits for drivers.

Several factors went into the district's decision to go with First Student, Liberto said.

“The district was faced with rising pension costs, but also, we would have had to purchase seven new buses to replace ones that were not going to pass inspection. At $80,000 per bus, you're talking about more than a half-million dollars,” he said. “Where was that money going to come from?”

In addition, Liberto said the district was not able to save money by purchasing used buses. State law prohibits them from buying used equipment.

“But a contractor has the ability to buy used vehicles” — First Student purchased the district's bus fleet, in fact, providing a large cash infusion for the 2011-12 budget — “or the ability to lease buses and then allow us to use them,” he said.

In the meantime, the bus driver's union, is still fighting for its membership. Union officials for Amalgamated Transit Union No. 1552, filed a labor complaint against the district with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board shortly after negotiations broke down in 2011. The complaint accuses the district of prematurely breaking off negotiations in order to outsource busing.

A decision in that case is “still pending because of backlogs with all cases due to budget cuts,” said Sara Goulet, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
 

Ellen Lydic is ready to submit a mileage reimbursement slip to the Penn Hills School District for driving her son to school.

Lydic was one of several parents at a school board meeting last week who expressed frustration over the state of district transportation, which was outsourced to First Student Inc. beginning with the 2011-12 school year.

Lydic said she's had to drive her son to school three times because the bus never showed up.

“My son waits at the stop for half an hour before coming home, and he has no bus,” she said.

After the school board terminated its contract with Amalgamated Transit Union No. 1552 in favor of First Student, some parents made similar complaints over the first two to three months of the school year.

They said buses ran up to 45 minutes late, and weren't picking up students after school, for example.

Complaints still are coming.

“It's hard to be professional in my career and have a meeting interrupted by an (Oct. 4) phone call saying that my 8-year-old son is in a parking lot with no way to get home,” parent Greg Hatfield told the school board. Hatfield's son attends St. John the Baptist School in Plum.

Many parent complaints involve students who are bused to schools outside the district.

St. John the Baptist Principal Teresa Szmed said on Oct. 4, a group of about eight students were waiting for a First Student bus from Penn Hills when her office received a call from someone at the bus garage in Penn Hills “basically asking if we could find another way of getting those kids home,” Szmed said.

The following Monday, that same bus did not pick up any of those same kids in the morning, prompting Szmed to call newly hired transportation director Allen Ayers.

“He was totally flabbergasted,” Szmed said.

“He hadn't heard anything about it. Following that phone call, the bus has been on time with a different person driving.”

Ayers did not return calls for comment.

Szmed, who has been principal at St. John since 1997, said she never has encountered a situation like that before.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, First Student Area General Manager Phil Eades acknowledged parents' frustration.

“We're well aware that we've caused some aggravation on some of the routes,” he said.

“We started the year with a full complement of drivers, but we've struggled with attrition, we've run into recruiting by other districts, and we've also had to turn away some drivers who do not meet our standards.

“I'm confident that you're going to see the consistency and reliability you expect.”

First Student driver Beth DePalma said her problem was with the routes distributed by the school district, which she said set unrealistic expecations for how quickly drivers could move between stops.

She said one of the reasons drivers are running behind schedule is that district pickup rosters routinely include children who do not attend district schools. Penn Hills has nearly 4,000 students.

“I am not happy, and this is not $5.1 million worth of our tax dollars,” board member Jennifer Burgess-Johnson said, referring to the amount paid to First Student.

“We are paying you for a service, and we expect to receive that service.”

Bill McClarnon, secondary-education director for the district, said the problem is one of staffing.

“The underlying issue, soup to nuts, is that First Student does not have enough drivers. They have enough buses, but they do not have sufficient employees to drive them,” he said.

“It's killing us.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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