December 2013/January 2014 - Labor Issues
December 17, 2013

District control over bus services better for students and community

Author: Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
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It's a precedent the Chenango Valley Support Staff Association is unwilling to set - and with good reason.

Contract negotiations between the unit and the Chenango Valley Central School District are at an impasse over the district's demand to add the right to outsource. The district wants to privatize three of the 22 bus driver positions because it can't find replacements. The solution, local President Kim Christensen says, is to offer a higher hourly wage - not to outsource.

Privatizing district transportation remains a disturbing pattern as public schools seek ways to cut costs as state aid dwindles.

"Outsourcing is not the answer," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees School-Related Professional issues for the union. "Research has shown that proposed savings from contracting out fail to materialize. And most recent cases demonstrate there are insufficient controls in the privatization process, legally questionable practices and violations of contractual agreements."

When school districts in Pennsylvania, for example, privatized their transportation they actually spent more taxpayer money for services than districts that handled their own transportation, according to a 2008 Keystone Research Center study. The San Diego Unified School District saved $1 million per year after deciding to handle its own bus transportation, according to In the Public Interest, a resource center on responsible contracting.

Outsourcing transportation often ends up costing districts more because it hands over control of services to entities focused on maximizing profit. Costs tucked deep into contracts, such as extra charges for sports transportation or for fuel charges, can cause districts to spend more than they bargained for. In some cases, the district can be responsible for any fuel costs that exceed $3 per gallon.

When the Niskayuna Central School District outsourced its transportation services to First Student Inc. earlier this year, the district had to hire someone to wash the school buses. "They didn't realize that wasn't part of the service," noted a source who asked not to be named because of employment concerns.

Jobs at private companies often pay substantially lower hourly wages, with few or no benefits.

In Niskayuna, for example, many of the district's drivers were rehired by the private vendor. But their pay was cut by as much as 22 percent. Drivers also lost pension credits and sick benefits, including accumulated sick days, the source said.

Private companies can experience high employee turnover, while districts give up control over employee quality, such as background checks and accountability. Even still, outsourcing remains an enticing option for cash-strapped districts.

NYSUT's SRP locals continue to fight back. The Niskayuna School District Employees Association filed an improper practice charge with the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which oversees the relationship between public sector employers and their employees.

PERB case law prohibits public sector employers in New York state from unilaterally imposing a change that impacts a "term and condition of employment," said Jeff Hartnett, regional staff director of NYSUT's Capital District Regional Office. Such changes must be negotiated with the union. The Niskayuna SDEA asserts the school district violated the Taylor Law when it unilaterally subcontracted transport services.

While the Niskayuna PERB case is pending, another has been decided. PERB in 2010 ruled in favor of the Manhasset Educational Support Personnel Association after it filed an improper practice charge against the district for unilaterally subcontracting bus services. Unit members received settlements for back pay and benefits.

"Outsourcing a school district's transportation negatively impacts the entire community since many of the drivers and attendants live in the communities where they work," Donahue said. A 2012 study by the National Education Association found that 75 percent of SRPs live in the districts in which they work.

Chenango Valley SSA members are using NYSUT's "SRPs Make a Difference" campaign to build community awareness.

"We're highlighting our bus drivers and attendants' training, expertise and commitment to the school district, and showing the tremendous contribution our SRPs make to the school district and to the community," Christensen said. "We work here, we live here, we vote here."

She said it's important for SRP members to understand that outsourcing has the potential to impact every job title, not just drivers.

"We don't want to open that door," she said.