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School bus privatization issue heats up

May 26, 2010 - By Susan Bromley

Staff Writer

Brandon Twp.- If the school board here decides to privatize bus or custodial services, they would join almost half of the school districts in Michigan who already contract out for one or both of those services and/or food services.

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 246 school districts out of 551 in the state, or 44.6 percent, contract out for food, custodial, or transportation services. The survey noted that 29 food, custodial or transportation services were outsourced in 2009 and new contracts alone were estimated to save taxpayers $6.9 million statewide.

In Brandon, district officials are contemplating outsourcing for both bus and custodial services as they seek to save more than $300,000 from the transportation budget and more than $500,000 from the custodial budget. Three companies have submitted proposals for offering bus service in Brandon. Eight companies attended a pre-bid meeting for custodial services.

While the school board has approved the cuts to the transportation and custodial budgets, outsourcing to achieve the targeted number is not a done deal. Officials say the numbers could also be achieved through negotiations with the existing unions.

Debbie Allen, union steward for Teamsters Local 214 representing the bus drivers, is unsure that's possible.

"The drivers are willing to work with the district to make some concessions, but I don't know if we can come up with that magic number they want," she said. "They do what they have to do, I guess, but at what cost?"

Allen questioned the qualifications of the three companies that submitted proposals for providing bus service to the school district, saying One Button Services lacks experience, Positive Connections has a record of poor service, and some employees at First Student have abused children.

Ed Dollin, president of One Button Services based in Cincinatti, said his company has been in business for six years and is merging with Apple Bus, which has been in business for 12 years. The two companies service 20 school districts in Indiana and Missouri. In Michigan, he said, Apple Bus manages the senior citizen buses in Kalamazoo.

"We have a fantastic safety rating through the inspection and state highway patrols, on down the line," Dollin said. "Accidents are few and far between."

The average employee has been with One Button Services for 5-and-a-half years and drivers average close to 10 years with the company, with an "extremely low" turnover rate, he said. Dollin adds that the majority of employees are hired from the school district's existing workforce and prior to being hired undergo a 7-year background check, as well as regular drug and alcohol testing.

Maureen Richmond, a spokesperson for First Student, said the company also does "very thorough" background checks. However a search of news reports turned up numerous disturbing incidents involving First Student employees. Among them, Alfredo Oviedo, a First Student bus driver in Illinois who was charged last December with battery of a 14-year-old girl after allegedly touching her chest and buttocks, then offering her $3 to keep quiet, and Brian Skoglund, a bus driver charged in 2009 with 41 counts of child endangerment after crashing a First Student bus while under the influence of drugs.

Richmond was familiar with both cases and said that both passed background checks, with nothing to indicate there would be any problems.

"All drivers are subject to background checks," she said. "Any type of inappropriate behavior or if they have not performed well, we would expect it would be found in our process. We're very confident that people who serve us are cream of the crop and are excellent employees based on those qualifications. These people (Oviedo and Skoglund) are not representative of our driving population or people we choose to drive for First Student."

Richmond admitted that First Student is on probation through September of this year in the state of Ohio following an audit last fall of driver records. State investigators found six issues at First Student that Richmond said were "mainly related to training records in one location in Ohio, and it was an administrative error."

As a result, she added, there was an extensive audit of the files at the Cincinatti-based company that boasts of transporting 4 million students to and from school every day with a fleet of more than 60,000 buses and 68,000 employees in 40 states and nine Canadian provinces.

Like One Button Services, Richmond said First Student also prefers to hire from within the community, as the drivers already know the students, the routes, the parents and the district representatives.

It is for this exact reason that Allen says the district should keep their own drivers and transportation department.

"Sixty-five percent of our drivers live in this community and the others live in surrounding districts," she said. "We shop here, bank here, eat here, this is our community. Look around and see the empty foreclosed homes and this will just add to the problem. The main reason is because Brandon's kids are our kids and their families are our families."

Pete Pearson, chief operating officer for Student Transportation of America/Positive Connections, a New Jersey-based company, did not return calls for comment.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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