G-A bus drivers fear outsourcing plan has resurfaced

— By JOYCE F. NOWELL, Echo Pilot
Jackie Simmons acts as the spokesperson for the Greencastle-Antrim School District’s bus drivers as her colleagues stand behind her addressing the school board during Thursday’s meeting.

Greencastle-Antrim School District bus drivers felt they had dodged the bullet last spring, but are again becoming concerned that their jobs are on the chopping block and the service they provide to the students of the school in jeopardy.

Jackie Simmons, a bus driver for the district and spokesperson for the drivers, spoke during the public comment period of the March 7 school board meeting, concerning an agenda item that sought the board’s consideration of contracting out the R2 bus route for the remainder of the current school year. Simmons said the drivers opposed the contacting of the route.

“We understand that the board is under constant pressure with the budget crisis, but we believe that no savings to our district would be made by this move at this time,” Simmons said.

Last spring the board sought quotes on outsourcing student transportation, but decided to keep its own fleet and drivers when the finances showed the in-house operation was more financially efficient.

The proposed contract for the R2 bus route was with Keifman Busing at a cost of $2.88 per mile or $150 per day. Officials did not share publicly where the Keifman company is based. Prior to the vote on that agenda item, the board went into executive (private) session for 40 minutes. Brian Hissong, board president, noted that the executive session was for personnel purposes.

During its discussion on the bus contracting proposal, neither the board nor school officials noted an exact current cost of using the substitutes for the run. Jolinda Wilson, district business manager, told the board there are a lot of components that go into the costs of operating the transportation system, including salary, benefits, training, maintenance and drug testing.

Simmons said after the meeting that substitutes earn $9.25 per hour and the run is five hours per day. She said substitute drivers do not receive benefits.

The board voted 6-3 to contract the R2 route for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year. Tracey Baer, Joel Fridgen, Brian Hissong, Eric Holtzman, Kenneth Haines and Mike Still voted for the contract. Mike Shindle, Dr. William Thorne and Melinda Cordell opposed.

After the vote, Simmons said, “We figured if they went this way, that’s it. We’re done.”

Outsourcing

Simmons had told the board earlier in the meeting that the drivers feared the outsourcing plan was again surfacing.

“The drivers feel this is a move by the business manager to start her process of contracting out more of our bus routes. Last year it was proven that the district runs our buses at a lower cost. The board voted last year 9-0 in favor of district-run buses. Now a year later — what has drastically changed? In knowing the cost per day of the two substitutes driving this run, what they make an hour, we don’t see that the contractor would be saving any money through the end of the year. They don’t collect insurance or pension benefits. For the remainder of the school year you would not have any extra cost using substitute drivers that have been on this run since November.”

In a memo to the school board that was included in the public packet place on the school district’s website with the meeting agenda, Wilson noted that “we have to weigh the costs of hiring someone for a short period when we know bus contracting is a topic of discussion.”

Wilson also wrote, “Many hours of discussion can be made on the pros and cons of contracting. However, we have to remember the original point of contracting out the one route was to see how much interest we generated (four contractors) and if the numbers financially make sense. (They do, if the big picture is evaluated.)” Wilson indicated in the memo that bus contracting would be discussed in “a lot of detail” at the upcoming school board retreat.

Frustration

Simmons said the drivers have sought a meeting with officials, but to no avail.

“We have tried through the chain of command to have a meeting on this issue. On Feb. 19, 20, 21 and 22 and again on March 1 drivers have requested a meeting and asked that Jolinda Wilson along with Travis Blubaugh (transportation director) attend to help answer questions. We have been rebuffed and denied each time. They would not show us the courtesy to discuss what or why this issue is happening and allow us to ask questions. We as a group have been bombarded the past week with conflicting information. It has led to more frustration and anxiety among us.”

Three drivers had expressed interest in taking over the R2 route, according to Simmons.

Another source of frustration for the drivers centered on a memo they received from the school board the morning before the 6 p.m. meeting. It indicated that “recently the board decided not to replace an open bus driver position, R2, with a district employee” when the board had not yet voted on the R2 bus contract.

The memo discussed the budget crunch the district is facing in the form of a $1.4 million deficit for the 2013-14 school year.

“As a board, we know that not everyone will agree with this decision,” the memo said of the R2 issue. “Yet as our revenues continue to remain below our expenditures, and our state-mandated pension obligations increase by an additional 40 percent for 2013-14, the board has to make decisions that will permit us to work towards a balanced budget.”