School bus company owner cautions that switching carriers can be tricky
Price shouldn’t be the only consideration in choosing a school bus company, but price was why Mark D. Schmitt didn’t make an offer to the Highlands School District.
Schmitt owns Monark Student Transportation in Richland and has been in the business his entire life. He considered submitting a proposal to Highlands but chose not to do so.
Highlands sought proposals as its current contract with its long-standing provider, W.L. Roenigk, expires at the end of June.
The district got only two, from Roenigk and ABC Transit.
After a presentation detailing how much money Highlands would save by hiring ABC Transit, the school board voted 4-3 at a special meeting Tuesday to award a five-year contract to ABC Transit.
But that was one vote short of the five needed — a majority of its full nine-member body — to do so.
Roenigk has served Highlands for its entire existence. Residents have been pressuring the school board to keep the company, even if it costs more.
Schmitt said Wednesday he could not beat Roenigk’s rates.
“After reviewing the numbers, I felt the current contractor’s rates they were charging Highlands were very reasonable,” he said. “There was nothing I could do to help.”
Schmitt said he had attended a pre-proposal meeting with district officials in March. Representatives of Roenigk and ABC were also there.
Monark had never made a proposal to Highlands before. Schmitt said he made it clear at the end of the meeting that Monark would not be making one now.
“Usually these requests for proposals go out because districts are looking for better pricing, primarily,” he said. “After reviewing the numbers that the current contractor (Roenigk) was operating at, the rate that Highlands was being charged by the current contractor was a very reasonable rate, extremely reasonable.”
Districts will also seek proposals if they’re not happy with the services being provided by their current contractor. That’s not the case in Highlands, Schmitt said.
“They made it clear they were happy with their current contractor,” he said. “It came down to numbers.”
Schmitt said he found it “strange” that a school board member, Jeff Mundy, was present at the meeting. At that time, Mundy was employed by ABC Transit.
“It seemed very much of a conflict of interest in my opinion,” Schmitt said. “I’ve been in this business a long time. That kind of soured me on it also.”
Residents have raised the same concern about Mundy’s involvement at recent Highlands school board meetings. He chairs the school board’s transportation committee.
Although Mundy no longer works for ABC Transit and district Solicitor Ira Weiss said he had no conflict of interest and could legally vote on the contract, Mundy abstained Tuesday.
Mundy responded to request for comment after-hours Wednesday. His Region II seat on the school board is up this year; his name does not appera on the primary ballot.
In an email, Mundy said he worked for Roenigk for 23 years and at ABC for 18 months.
“My choice to abstain from the vote was due to the fact that I had a professional and personal history with both companies, and I felt it would be cause for conflict regardless which way I voted,” he said. “I attended only one meeting simply for the fact that I am the chair of the transportation committee and also because I have worked in the transportation industry for 29 years. I was hoping to provide some insight to the situation, but I then removed myself due to all of the conflicts.”
On Wednesday, Weiss said he does not believe Mundy’s presence or participation in the March meeting tainted the process. He said Mundy was there to provide some expertise based on his experience but said the proposals were not reviewed.
“He abstained from the vote. He didn’t really speak to either proposal,” Weiss said of Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think it presents any legal issue. He’s not employed by either one now.”
Schmitt said he later called district administration to ask “what is going on here” with Mundy’s presence at the meeting. He said his call was never returned.
At a special meeting Tuesday, district Business Manager Lori Byron said Highlands would benefit by $1.4 million over five years by using ABC Transit instead of Roenigk. That includes savings in fees charged for vans and buses and fuel costs, and from more money received from the state.
But Schmitt said districts need to be careful when a new company comes in with claims it can undercut the current contractor.
“They may find out they’re not able to do the job the current contractor is doing,” he said.
If ABC gets the contract, it would have little time to set up the infrastructure needed to serve the district, Schmitt said.
“There’s a lot of moving parts in a school bus operation,” he said. “If they think they can switch from one to the other and have it happen in two months, it’s hard for me to comprehend.”
If a school district is being well-served by its current contractor, Schmitt said it’s best to sit down and negotiate with them instead of getting a new one.
“Switching has a lot of dangers,” he said. “You’re disrupting a system that is already working. Anyone can come in and say we’re going to cut your price. If a new company comes in and they find out it’s not the service they’re used to, then the district is stuck.”
Roenigk must be doing something right to have been serving Highlands for so long, Schmitt said.
“The bottom line is: If you’ve got a good contracting company providing you student transportation services and they’re doing a good job for you and their price is reasonable, you’re best just to leave it alone.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .