“Importantly enough, this next presentation is designed in an effort to help clean up any misinformation or clarify any concerns about the potential outsourcing of student transportation here at the Methacton School District,” said MSD Superintendent Dr. David A. Zerbe. “I’ve invited, as a result of being our lowest bid responder, the company First Student to present to the board and to the public their proposal.”
First Student’s director of business development, Jim Woods, and Randy Williams, area general manager for Eastern Pennsylvania, both spoke at the presentation.
“We recognize that this is a big decision that the board is undertaking,” said Woods. “We know that if you are going to make a move like this, that you certainly would want to partner with a company, that was number one safe, that’s the first and foremost, and that had a lot to offer Methacton School District. And, we are that company.”
Woods said that, while there would be changes, it would not be a reinvention of the wheel.
“We aren’t going to come in and change everything,” said Woods. “We would take your existing operation, add to that the resources, the capability, the technology we have available, and enhance the system you have today.”
A self-proclaimed “School Bus Geek,” Woods said he’s been in the busing business for more than 30 years, starting his career as a driver. In his time in the industry, he said many safety advances have come along, and First Student can apply those to the district.
“There are a number of things that make us ‘first,’” said Woods. “We can deliver great pricing because of the volume of business that we have. The other portion of it is local delivery. All that expertise we have at our headquarters and our ability to purchase at a low cost doesn’t matter if we don’t deliver great service on a daily basis safely.”
First Student operates over 50,000 buses in 38 states, with around 60,000 employees, according to Woods. He also noted around 1 in 10 school buses in the state are operated by FS. As a result, Woods said the company strives to integrate with the communities it serves.
“A majority of our employees that service a school district live in a community,” said Woods. “They are parents, aunts and uncles of students in the school system. It is important for us to be involved in the community.”
Williams added to the presentation during the school board meeting with key safety notes.
“One of our core values is that safety is everything we do, it drives everything we do,” said Williams. “If you can’t do it safely, don’t do it. It is something we train our drivers to live by.”
Williams noted that designations such as the Green Cross, presented by the National Safety Council, along with the Occupational Excellence Achievement and Employee Awareness Award coincide with being “twice as safe, our drivers, as the industry average.”
“That doesn’t come as an accident,” said Williams. “That comes from ongoing training.”
FS boasts being 1.5 times safer than the next largest bus company, according to Williams who attributes even stricter than state requirements when it comes to training, as FS forces at least 40 hours of training.
Some examples of the safety measures include that all drivers wearing yellow vests while working, all vehicles operating crossing control arms, a solid relationship with Thomas-Built” buses, as well as “Zonar” GPS systems to double check on drivers or “ZPass,” individual student-tracking technology.
All vehicles also have digital videos, as well as Child Check Me, a program that forces drivers to head to the rear of the bus at the end of a shift to check for any students.
Woods noted that a system called “First Acts” automates chain notifications during any incidents as added technology benefits.
Additionally, Woods noted that the company’s Planning Solutions saves time and money on district routes. The only bus company of its size to have “an in-house electronic planning division,” according to Woods, allows FS to find “efficient routes and what-if analysis, to keep school routes efficient.”
The organization took a look at the Methacton current route planning and already found ways to save on transportation.
“We took the initial RFP, did a high level view of the capacity in the matter of time in available minutes and seating capacity, and, in that quick look, determined a possibility of eliminating up to three runs in the system without adjusting any bell times,” said Woods.
In additional to safety measures, Woods said that FS takes pride in preventative measures to keep things running smoothly, from on-time routes to operational buses.
“Prevention is a very key part of what we do,” said Woods. He said the word means to FS both the preparation of ensuring buses are safe and drivers are trained, but also preparing for other drivers, who may not be as concerned as bus drivers when it comes to safety.
Woods also provided an overview of FS employees.
“Our drivers average seven years in experience,” he said. “Just a little more than 50 percent of our drivers are female.”
The company aims to keep current drivers in the driver’s seats.
“Our desire is to hire all of the current employees, so we’re going to make our employment packages as attractive to them as we can,” said Woods, noting that the current drivers know the routes best. “Those people are very, very important to us. We’re going to invest in those drivers.”
He said the preliminary checks are also very thorough for FS employees.
“Our drivers go through more background checks than a teacher,” said Woods.
If selected, Woods said the company would try to do the following:
· Hire as much staffing as possible currently in place
· Retain 90 percent or greater of the current workforce
· Current union representation comes with employees (if over 50 percent hired)
· Grandfather current hourly wages
· Increases in September (each year)
· IBX health benefits, dental and vision care access
· Additional charter work (not previously available)
· Drivers able to collect unemployment benefits
· Employment opportunities elsewhere (transfers to other locations)
· Promotions from within
The company representatives also discussed a transition plan, should they become the contracted organization for Methacton.
“We would sit down with members of your administration, go through this plan, make sure you are in agreement with what we are about to do, make sure that we have communicated very clearly what we expect, and that we hear your expectations very clearly,” said Woods. “We communicate to your current employees very clearly. We help them to make the step into working with First Student.”
Woods said the plan includes five main steps: communication and community relations, hiring, training and orientation for employees, route-planning and optimization, fleet, maintenance and facility and IT infrastructure.
“If you were to do this, I believe the current plan is a very good plan,” said Woods. “It has a great balance for operational savings.”
For example, FS may offer to purchase the fleet, to provide cash to the district up front.
“There will be no additional cost to the district over our fee for the technology,” said Woods. “It is in balance with taking care of current employees.”
The district is currently weighing continuing with current drivers, directly hired by the district, versus hiring out a private company such as First Student to do the driving. Drivers, currently represented by Teamsters Local 384, which also represents First Student, have been in ongoing negotiations with the district, which officials say are still going on.
The current RFP asked for a five-year contract, which FS placed first with the lowest bid. Board members asked if, after five years, there would be a drastic increase in the contract, but Woods said the established 2.5 percent per year increase would likely remain.
Williams warned that variables such as petroleum costs might make it higher, but said “we’re able to keep our costs consistent,” citing the company’s size and ability to purchase in large quantities. The contract also required 41 new buses for the district in the first year. These buses, according to Woods, would replace currently used, and the most out-of-date or disrepair units.
The school board will host a special meeting, according to district coordinator of school and community information, Angela Linch, on Tuesday, May 6 at 6:15 p.m. The meeting will be held in the Methacton High School’s LGI Room. The public is welcome to attend to share thoughts on the possible changes.
“Negotiations with the Teamsters are ongoing, and the Board has not yet made any decisions relative to outsourcing of our transportation services,” said Linch.
Any residents looking to view the entire FS presentation can do so here:
Concerned citizens have circulated articles noting past incidents with FS, including a story about Wissahickon School Board’s woes adjusting to FS in 2013, as well as an article about an FS driver in Darby who dropped children as young as 5 blocks away from their stops. Parents of the William Penn students were not notified of the incident until calling local police. The driver, who was said to be a substitute driver unfamiliar with the route according to a Delco Times article, was arraigned in March of 2014 on 20 counts of reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children and, in lieu of posting bail, was remanded to Delaware County prison.
Letters were anonymously sent to “Home and School Association Officers” via U.S. Mail last week, one of which was also sent to LP TAP directly.
During the FS presentation, the board also heard from a driver directly.
Charlie Falco, a driver and representative for the Teamsters, asked the FS representation about seniority and hours worked for those workers currently employed by the district. He had concerns about wages, and how the new company would impact those that had worked with the district for years.
“Hourly wage? What happens in five years when a new contract pops up? It is a big, big concern,” said Falco.
“Seniority. We recognize your date from the time you were employed with the district,” said Woods. “If 50 percent come, we recognize union representation. As far as other drivers coming in taking hours or seniority, we do offer transfer. Anybody who moves to where there are First Student facilities, they have the ability to move and take their seniority with them.”
Some questions the public had could not be answered, as they were a matter of union contract negotiation, meaning the wording negotiated by the union may impact the outcome.
“It may happen over the course of five years, ten years, but it is not part of our recruiting strategies [to take from employees],” said Woods. “We want you to stay on your current route.”