Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Busing a rhyme

I can't really weigh in on the question of transporting our kids to school without admitting that I have already been hammered for wanting to "hammer on" this issue.  That was the phrase that I used when I I sent a Facebook message on the subject to the three school board members who are my friends there (luckily another board member quietly defriended me after my call for transparency during his last reelection campaign; I'd hate to risk a violation of the open meetings law), and one of those friends took exception to the phrase.

I'm not a musician, but I think that "hammer on" is a way to create a sustained note through continuous pressure on a guitar string.  My board member friend, I fear, anticipated an approach much more aggressive and nasty.  I can't say I can blame anyone on the board for such a reaction; in New Paltz it's rare to find someone who is willing to debate using truth and logic instead of passion and half-truths.  In addition, I'm no stranger to passionately arguing for a position I care about.  Hopefully I've learned my lesson.

Now, about those school buses

I've been following a local school bus strike threat for the Shawangunk Journal, and it's quite amazing what I have learned.  New Paltz drivers start at $22.90 an hour, while Rondout Valley pays about $23 an hour for its bus contractor.  RV's drivers are considering a strike because they make so little, but as it stands now the districts which privately contract are paying a rate per hour that is comparable to our local driver hourly rate.

How much should busing really cost?
Keep in mind, the hourly rate in New Paltz doesn't include sick time, vacation, retirement, vehicle procurement or maintenance.  We voted down a new school bus proposal just last year, and privatizing busing is one of many options the board is going to consider to resolve the insane budgeting problems they face.

I've had people tell me that they would not feel comfortable with contract drivers. This is an emotional argument, and I sincerely hope no board member dares consider it.  I want facts, and only facts, to make this decision.  Facts might include:

  • The way that private companies are regulated by the state in comparison to how the district is regulated
  • Documented records of safety and screwups.
  • A comparison of how often private companies need to send in a substitute unfamiliar with the route versus how often the district needs to do so.
  • An analysis of transportation times, both overall and with a substitute at the wheel.
  • A comparison of background check requirements.
Starting now, and going forward, I am going to sound a note for privatizing our busing.  Unless strong evidence is presented to show that we really need to be spending three, four, or more times what neighboring districts do for their busing (Rondout Valley privatized 19 years ago, and so far their biggest problem is the threat that three drivers will strike), I am going to continue to keep hammering on that note until I am heard.  Short of consolidating districts (which is outside the scope of this post), I can see no more effective way to save tons of money with very little downside.


bd said...

Well, if facts really do matter i will share some 1st hand knowledge of school busing,
I drove a school bus for both NP Schools in the mid - late 70's, & a private carrier too.

I also sold maintenance products in the late 80's & 90's to both District & private Bus garages.

THERE IS A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE betwixt the two !!!
The level of care & diligence drops drastically when School Busing goes private.
The quality of the people hired is like day & night & when you put adults around children, you want the highest level of trust & security & i know the people i dealt with in the private Bus garages were way lower on the character & honesty scale then in the District garages, i knew.
The private Garages aslo skimped on maintenance & the quality of their products due to those "feared" words, PROFIT MARGIN ! Mechanics too , were of inferior levels of competance, regardless of State Inspections, you can cut corners if ya want to.
Back in the Dark Ages, when Frank Hamilton ran our District almost by himself & Bob DuBois ran the entire Bus Garage out of his Dairy Farmer's head, things really ran smoothly. There was very little PC pressure & the much less intense & much smarter administration handled discipline matters whether driver or student, in a more effective way, too.
When your Drivers are "local" folks & you work for the District you pay taxes to, & your neighbor's kids are your passengers, you take much more pride in your work.

I know this to be true,, i saw it, i felt it, i know it.

Questions ??


pete healey said...

Terence, do Rondout Valley bus drivers receive all of the $23 per hour that the contractor is paid on their behalf? When I worked for Manpower once upon a time, the company paid a high rate for my services but Manpower kept a big proportion of that rate for its profit and administrative costs. I know someone who works for First Student out of the hamlet of Walkill, and I think she drives for Valley Central schools. Her rate is about $17.50.

Terence said...

Thanks for that, Butch - that kind of personal experience carries a lot of weight.

I do have questions, one now and probably more: are you saying that with a private company you lose the advantage of having a local driver transporting local kids? I would think that this could be written into the contract with the company.

Terence said...

Pete, sorry I wasn't clear on that point. I was noting that Rondout Valley is paying, in toto, around 23 an hour for its bus service, compared to New Paltz, which starts its drivers at $22.90 plus a variety of benefits that most of us in the real world can't afford for ourselves, much less for them. The company I spoke with pays its drivers $9-11 an hour, which appears to be very low on the pay scale. I think there's probably a living wage in the middle there that would make me lose a hell of a lot less sleep come mortgage payment day.

bd said...

I don't know about writing that into the contract but i do know you can't guarantee the staffing of the drivers as well, because if they are short-handed for a run, then the next available driver goes & you know who this reserve is if it is under your people's supervision. Private Carriers are more removed from your oversight once the deal is signed.
I believe, it HAS been awhile tho,


Martin McPhillips said...

A contract can specify whatever level of performance the school district wants from a bus company, including the qualifications of and background checks on drivers as well as the maintenance standards for the buses. The latter could be backed up by routine inspections by the district's designated mechanic. The price advantage gained by contracting out a service can be negated by making the performance standards too burdensome or unrealistic.