Many school bus companies across New York state and the country have reached out to me about the perils of the COVID-19 crisis and what has happened to their businesses. Mass layoffs have taken place. Shops have completely ceased operations. Many customers are refusing to pay their contractors and thus have left school bus companies with no revenue, no employees, and no way to continue to provide the many services behind the scenes, that are needed to comply with a transportation contract.
Just this week, an additional 4,000 school bus employees were laid off in New York state. That number will continue to grow. There are 125,000 school bus employees in New York state alone. Private contractors make up 63 percent of that number. The State of New York’s education system is predominately privately contracted services, and 2.2 million students in New York ride the school bus. Why has this payment issue not been taken with the severity and understanding it deserves?
School districts have told private school bus contractors that they cannot pay them under their contracts for multiple reasons. But two excuses are the most prevalent: They are not contractually obligated to pay and payment can be seen as a gift of public funds, and secondly, the bus contractors are no longer providing services to the school districts.
Let me use this article to rebut both of these ill-informed district talking points so that you may use them in your fight to be paid.
Attorneys have been doing significant research on school districts statements that any payments to contractors at this time will be seen as a gift of public funds. Here is what the attorneys found:
New York Constitution section (Article 8, Section 1) does not apply to the situation. Article 8, Section 1 precludes school districts from making payments that could be considered “gifts.” New York case law interpreting and applying the provision makes clear that it does not apply to a school district’s contractual payment obligations for bus services. See Niagara County v Levitt, 97 Misc. 2d 421, 425 [Sup Ct, Erie County 1978] [municipal expenditures for public transportation do not conflict with New York State Constitution].
I agree with the above statement and do not believe there is a valid constitutional argument. Consult with your attorneys, but this is a positive development in our discussions on how ill-informed the school districts are regarding this statement.
Now, moving on to the service dilemma, and this is always a common misconception of the school bus industry. School bus companies provide many more services than just “transportation” services. This industry may be extremely narrow, but it runs miles deep. The laymen’s naiveté does not know the myriad of compliance, qualification and regulatory hoops school bus contractors must jump through before that bus gets on the road to even provide the “transportation services.” These drivers and these buses must be the safest people and vehicles on the road to transport our precious children.
Let’s dive into that. Before a school bus goes on the road, the following needs to happen: Drivers and matrons must complete their 19-A Medical, New York State Department of Transportation physicals, 19A Road Test, blood pressure and diabetes follow-up, physical performance, annual and monthly abstracts, CPR/First Aid training, 13 county background checks, and other courses regulated by the New York State Department of Education.
Mechanics must maintain the vehicles in accordance with the MC300 vehicle inspection report, so that the vehicle can receive a passed inspection sticker from the New York State Department of Transportation. This inspection is conducted twice a year.
How are the above regulatory compliance requirements not services provided to the school districts? If these are not done, there is no transportation service to be provided.
So, lets put this into perspective. Schools will come back. In-class learning will resume. School buses will be needed to transport children to and from home to school. This is inevitable.
When school districts do not pay school bus contractors, the contractors cannot pay their employees. The employees must be laid off. Thus, the companies will fall out of compliance. When a school district wants to resume service, they are not understanding how long it will take hundreds of employees to get the company and themselves back into compliance. This could take months. Yes, months. If a school district thinks that at the snap of a finger a school bus contractor can resume service, they are in for a rude awakening.
Related: Why Are Some Districts Not Paying School-Bus Contractors During Coronavirus Closures?
Related: Coronavirus Stimulus Stipulates Continued Payment to Student Transporters, School Bus Contractors
Related: Update: Illinois Districts to Continue Paying School Bus Contractors During Coronavirus Closures
Related: COVID-19 Resources
Related: Coronavirus Pandemic Alters Missions, Routines for Student Transportation Professionals
This isn’t a threat, and this isn’t meant to be argumentative. This is reality. Think of what will happen when there is no school bus transportation for months while school is open. This decision made by the school districts today could disturb children who take the school bus to education for months. It will distract the parents and the community from resuming normalcy.
Processing a driver when hired is a six- to eight-week process before a global pandemic. How long will it take after a pandemic? How will the regulatory agencies be staffed? How quickly will they be able to process qualifications to put employees back into compliance? These unknowns make it virtually impossible to plan for your company that has had to lay off the majority of its workforce.
This is not a gift of public funds, and these contractors are still providing essential services to their customers. The easiest and most economically sensible decision school districts can make is to pay their transportation contractors so there will be a minimal lapse in service, if one at all.
I hope these talking points can be used to educate school districts, attorneys and the general population to agree that we must pay our privately-owned school bus contractors. This must be done so that these companies may continue to employ and pay the people who transport our children safely every day in the past and every day in the future.
The school bus industry deserves attention. Before it is too late.
Corey Muirhead is the president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, which represents 100 privately owned school bus companies that transport 63 percent of students in New York state. Muirhead is also the executive vice president of Logan Bus and Affiliates in Ozone Park, New York, the largest privately owned school bus company in the state with over 4,000 employees.