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Penn Hills officials expect no bus problems, union thinks otherwise

Penn Hills students and parents shouldn't expect to see many changes to school bus service next week when the district's new transportation contractor, First Student, picks up students instead of the district-run bus service, company and district officials said.

In most cases, the same buses will travel the same routes as drivers pick up 4,700 students on Wednesday, the first day of school.

"It should be business as usual," said John Plazarin, director of transportation for Penn Hills School District.

But Lori Krapf, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1552, whose drivers were dismissed after contract negotiations failed in the spring, said using new drivers may compound beginning-of-the-year snarls. The drivers and mechanics' contract expired at the end of June. Besides laying off 75 drivers, five mechanics and 12 bus aides, Penn Hills sold its buses to First Student.

"Every year, there's chaos. A majority of us worked there for over a dozen years. We knew what we were doing. People coming from the outside could make it more chaotic," Krapf said. "If little Susie or little Johnny is lost for a couple of hours, it's not going to be pretty."

Penn Hills School Board hired First Student in May when they could not come to an agreement with the bus drivers' union, which was willing to accept a five-year contract in which members would pay 30 percent of their medical insurance premiums and take a wage freeze in two of five years, with 2 percent raises in the second, fourth and fifth years of a contract.

But the district wanted union members to sign a three-year deal in which drivers would pay 60 percent of their medical premiums and take a two-year wage freeze, followed by a 1.5 percent raise.

District officials said hiring First Student and selling the district's buses to the Cincinnati-based bus operator -- the nation's largest -- would save $3.3 million this year and between $1.4 million and $1.7 million in each of the remaining years of the five-year contract.

The union, whose members are trying to get their jobs back, filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board in May, and a fact finder on Aug. 1 made recommendations for a new contract offer, agreeing mostly with the union's offer.

The school board first rejected the report on Aug. 10 and reaffirmed its decision this week. Union members last week unanimously voted to accept it to show they are willing to return to work, said Ingrid Streussnig, recording secretary for Local 1552.

"We don't anticipate the school district going back into negotiations with us unless they're forced," Streussnig said.

District spokeswoman Teresita Kolenchak declined to comment on whether the district was willing to negotiate.

However, Sean Yeakle, press secretary for the sate Department of Labor & Industry, said late Tuesday that negotiations must proceed.

"Yes, both parties have an obligation to continue bargaining," he said in an e-mail.

If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, they will square off at a hearing in front of the Labor Relations Board on Feb. 1, 2012.

Robert Eberle, the attorney representing Local 1552, said the drivers have a strong case. A contract dispute between the Williamsport Area School District and its bus union ended in May with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ordering the district to rescind its contract with a private bus company, reinstate its union employees and gave those employees back pay, he said.

In the meantime, First Student will transport the district's 4,700 students. Company spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said First Student has hired 22 of the district's 75 drivers, who will take part in a 50-hour training program and take required training programs throughout the year.

By the start of the school year, the buses will be outfitted with additional safety equipment, including crossing gates and on-board cameras, Bastian said. Within the next few months, the buses will receive Child Check Mate Systems, which ensure no child is left alone on the bus, and Zonar, a GPS and vehicle inspection system, she said.

Krapf said there are no hard feelings against the drivers who took jobs.

"I understand everybody has their own needs, I understand they need to work, but I'm disappointed," she said.

Krapf said First Student drivers earn less money than those who worked under the union contract. Her husband, Gary, for example, a bus driver for 25 years who had been at the top of the pay scale, would have had to take a $7.50 hourly pay cut had he taken a job with First Student.

"In five years they'll be highly amazed at how little they saved," Krapf said. "They won't have the quality, loyalty or dependability they had with us."

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