School bus costs soar under new Tiverton contract

Five-year deal brings double digit price hike; bus monitor costs rise 45 percent

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 7/15/20

TIVERTON — The Tiverton School Committee voted, because they have no choice several members said Thursday, to approve a new school bus contract that pushes town payments over budget by more …

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School bus costs soar under new Tiverton contract

Five-year deal brings double digit price hike; bus monitor costs rise 45 percent

Posted

TIVERTON — The Tiverton School Committee voted, because they have no choice several members said Thursday, to approve a new school bus contract that pushes town payments over budget by more than 15 percent in the first year of the five-year deal.

Part of the hike is propelled by a requirement that school bus monitors be paid for a four-hour minimum work day instead of the current three hours — monitor costs would jump by 45 percent.

And the committee showed a lack of enthusiasm for a bus company proposal that would pay Tiverton $40,000 a year for use of the middle school parking lot to park 29 of the company's buses that are used in Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth and perhaps other East Bay locations.

Committee Chairman Jerome Larkin voted yes, “Reluctantly in that a company we have tried to be an honest and fair partner with is not exactly being fair with us.”

The deal with First Student bus company calls for Tiverton to pay $2,049,522 for its school buses next year, up from the $1,779,000 that had been budgeted for 2021, an increase of $270,522.

Part of that, the cost for monitors, will rise from the budgeted $384,300 to $560,102.

“It's a difficult decision and nobody likes it,” said Superintendent of Schools Peter Sanchioni. “It's just the only decision — It is the option that protects us the best in a bad situation.”

Although only Diane Farnworth voted no, all on the committee said they are frustrated by the abrupt price hike and the lack of school bus competition in Rhode Island that enables such increases.

First Student, the town's present provider, was the only company to respond to Tiverton's request for bid proposals through the East Bay Collaborative.

“There is plenty of profit built into this contract everywhere you look,” said committee member Diane Farnworth. “We are a district that is really struggling right now. We are stuck in Rhode Island with a two company monopoly … Both of these companies see to it that they get their piece by sticking to the communities that they deal with already — there is no crossing over lines or competition whatsoever.”

“We are essentially stuck between two companies that don't really bid against each other in any effective or meaningful way,” Dr. Larkin said. “We are essentially dealing with a single source provider” — he likened it to the way pharmaceutical companies are able to raise prices at will.

In the long-term, he added, we need to talk to out legislative delegation about this, “or our other option is to not have transportation.”

Ms Farnworth was also unhappy with the fact that the is for five years instead of the customary three years with an option for two-year renewal.

How did that happen, she asked.

That was an error, she was told, when the bid proposal was sent out from the East Bay Collaborative. The School Department has twice talked to First Student about changing the terms back to three years but the company has only replied that it bid on the proposal as submitted.

Amy Roderick, director of administration and finance for the Tiverton schools, said First Student told her that it priced the package aggressively as a five year contract — she cautioned that attempting to re-bid might result in a worse deal given coronavirus prospects.

The company had also offered two alternative bids which, while they offered somewhat lower first year costs, included other add-ons including built-in cost of living hikes of 3 percent rather than 1.75 percent — the prices wound up to be around the same, the committee was told.

Ms. Roderick said that, while the increase is significant, there is the possibility of savings if the coronavirus causes the schools to revert to partial or complete distance learning, thus reducing or eliminating bus use by students.

But if the buses carry a smaller number of students due to the virus, that comes to an “astronomical” per-student cost, a committee member said.

Members also questioned the bus aides payment which, a committee member said, comes to nearly $30 per hour per aide— far less than the aides are actually paid.

Bus parking at middle school

After they had approved the five year bus contract, committee members were told of a First Student proposal that would provide some money to the town in return.

The bus company no longer has use of its present parking lot so asked about using a corner of the Tiverton Middle School parking lot in the rear of the school.

First Student would pay $4,000 per month ($40,000 per year). The schools, in turn, would provide the bus company with an office with internet and secure entrance at the middle school for their dispatcher, and would install some parking lot lighting.

The buses would be away on their runs during school drop-off and pick-up times so would not interfere with traffic at those peak moments.

Committee members had immediate questions and concerns.

“Where will the drivers and monitors park,” Elaine Pavao asked. The lot is already pretty full even before the buses are added. And what about security with bus employees being provided entrance through a back door?

They would have to be buzzed in and would only be allowed in long enough to pick up their keys, she was told.

“The lot is always full,” Sally Black said. “They are not paying us enough.”

Supt. Sanchioni said he walked that portion of the parking lot with a bus company representative and their seemed to be adequate space for 29 buses.

“They are not paying us nearly enough,” Ms. Farnworth said, especially given the size of the bus contract the schools had just approved..

Others wondered about conflicts with after-school events, parking on parent-teacher nights when people already have to park down the road, and plowing.

“I think it's going to be disruptive,” Ms. Farnworth said, and “I agree they are not paying nearly enough.”

If committee members aren't prepared to approve the arrangement, the superintendent asked if they would provide the company with a “sense of the committee” for now.

We would need to have a lot of the details worked out, Mr. Larkin replied. And, “The reimbursement seems pretty paltry.”

“The sense of the committee,” he added, is, “Boy, that's a really big ask.”

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