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School bus contractor picks up complaints

| Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

The Penn Hills School District made a wrong turn when it hired a contractor to take over student bus transportation, some irate parents say.

Some drivers for First Student Inc., a division of Cincinnati-based FirstGroup America, have been picking up students late since the company started transporting them Aug. 31, they said.

The district hired First Student to provide bus service for 4,700 students after contract negotiations with unionized bus drivers collapsed.

A First Student spokeswoman said she would check into the complaints about bus service.

But this morning, some parents at bus stops said they are still experiencing problems, and even where they have been corrected, remain angry.

"On the first day of school, the bus never showed up. At the end of the day, my daughter was left on the school bus and taken 10 to 15 minutes down the road," said Julie Parker, who waited at a stop on Shannon Road with her children, who are in kindergarten and first grade.

"I had to call the bus company to find her," said Julie Parker, who has children in kindergarten and first grade. "There's going to be a lot of angry parents at the next PTA meeting."

Betty Johnson, at the Penn Hills Free Methodist Church on Universal Road, said her fourth grader's bus was early.

"The bus is supposed to get her at 8:25 a.m. It's 8:20 a.m. right now, and it's already gone. That happened two days in a row now.

"I have to go, because I have to get these kids to school," she said before driving away in her van.

In May, Penn Hills hired First Student to replace drivers with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1552. The district said that hiring First Student would save it $3.3 million this year and between $1.4 million and $1.7 million in remaining years of the five-year contract.

The district laid off 75 drivers, five mechanics and 12 bus aides.

Still, bargaining talks must continue, and a Labor Relations Board hearing will take place Feb. 1 if a deal isn't reached before then, the state Department of Labor & Industry said last month.

The school district is investigating the complaints on a case-by-case basis and working with First Student to get the problems corrected as quickly as possible, Superintendent Thomas Washington said Tuesday.

"For the most part, the timing has gotten better each and every day," he said.

The scheduling glitches are a normal problem in a new school year, compounded by the First Student switch, but the late arrivals are not excessive, Washington said.

Union President Lori Krapf could not be reached for comment.

Not all parents are having problems with First Student.

"Everything has run similar to previous years. There's always a couple little hiccups the first couple days of schools," said Christine Polaski, who has two daughters in Linton Middle School. She is the president of the Linton Parent Teacher Association but she said was not speaking for the PTA.

School director Joe Bailey, one of two board members who voted against hiring First Student, said problems should have been expected.

"Realistically, I know that whenever you introduce something new into the environment, you have to allow time for things to really pan out and operate the way that you would expect," said Bailey, who is driving his 16-year-old daughter to Penn Hills Senior High School this school year.

He said administrators met with officials of First Student on Friday to discuss parents' concerns.

Patrick Varine contributed.

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