Upper Merion district considers privatizing school bus service

    (NewsWorks file photo)

    (NewsWorks file photo)

    School bus drivers in Upper Merion are hoping a recent fatal school bus crash in Tennessee will give school board members second thoughts about contracting with a private company for busing services.

    Upper Merion Area School District board members are scheduled to vote on a proposed contract with First Student, North America’s largest private busing company, Monday evening.

    Another provider, Durham School Services, holds the contract with the Tennessee district where the crash occurred.

    School bus driver Matthew Beasley is circulating a Change.org petition, highlighting the accident in Chattanooga and calling on the school board to keep its existing arrangement.

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    The Upper Merion district has been “very hush-hush about this and it’s time the taxpayers and parents know what is going on,” he wrote in petition explanation.

    “The district has only offered the drivers two options so far. Either take a 25 percent pay cut  or take a 1-year bridge contract so they can sell the fleet and allow First Student to take over,” he wrote. “This is after the drivers have already had a 5-year pay freeze and are now on year 6 and working without a contract.”

    Beasley, whose Facebook photos include one of him driving a school bus dressed as Santa Claus, grinning ear-to-ear, did not respond to requests for comment.

    In a letter to parents sent out last week, district superintendent John Toleno tried to clarify the district’s case for shedding its busing services.

    “Our goal is to provide quality, consistent, safe, courteous service to the students we serve,” he said.

    Toleno detailed a number of measures baked into the contract that would guarantee all current drivers “in good standing” a job with First Student, as well as  a 2.25 percent raise.

    He also promised “substantial cost savings to the district for each year” of the proposed five-year contract. Drivers would be switched over from state health care and pension benefits, however, a sticking point for drivers.

    Representatives from the school district also did not respond to requests for comment.

    Privatizing services in public school is nothing new, particularly in the area of transportation.

    According to the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania districts use a private contractor. Incidentally, the association’s website promotes the use of private contractors as a cost-saving measure. 

    A 2012 report by the Keystone Research Center, a left-leaning think tank with board members coming from prominent unions, offers a dimmer picture of the benefits of privatizing busing.

    “Contracting out significantly increases total costs,” according to the report, although that burden falls to the state, which provides reimbursements for transportation, rather than local districts.

    Correction: A previous headline identified the district as Lower Merion. It is Upper Merion.

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