A plan to contract school bus service to address a $24 million budget shortfall in Marion County (Fla.) has been put on hold at least temporarily as on-going negotiations between the district and a local employee union led to concerns that the transportation contract could not begin in time for the pending school year.
Student Transportation of America (STA) beat out two other private contractor companies to win a recommendation from the Marion County School Board this spring to provide service to the school district. STA promised to reduce transportation costs by $27 million over an initial five-year contract. Included are annual savings of $2.6 million that would come via the implementation of more efficient operations, an immediate cash influx from STA in the amount of $6 million to purchase the school district’s fleet school buses, $7 million to purchase 100 new school buses, and “an additional $1 million for a direct budget reduction,” according to a company statement.
Kevin Christian, a spokesperson for Marion County Public Schools, said the long-term plan to contract out the services remains. But, he added, the pending negotiations with the local transportation union resulted in Superintendent Jim Yancey opting to pull the proposal from a scheduled school board vote because of the looming Aug. 27 start to the 2011-2012 school year.
At issue is a “me, too” parity clause that essentially requires the school district to offer concurrent raises to school employees who belong to the three labor unions. But Christian explained that the district finds the verbiage to be illegal. Marion County Public Schools has already successfully negotiated with the other two employee unions to remove the language from the contracts.
Christian said the district could still implement the contracted bus service mid-way through the coming school year or wait until 2012-2013. But first, the district faces another $8 million in cuts during the coming school year.
“If the district and the union can come to an agreement, which pretty much they’re 98 percent there now, that agreement will save a significant amount of money not just next year but in the next three, four, five years,” Christian told School Transportation News. “[Contracted school busing] will be something that is considered.”
Still, STA expressed disappointment.
“We, like many others in the school and business community, are extremely disappointed in the [s]uperintendent’s decision to table the transportation issue for the meeting tomorrow night,” said Glenn Needler, senior vice president of operations for STA in a statement on June 27. “We are ready to begin work immediately to upgrade the [c]ounty’s school bus fleet and to welcome school district transportation employees to the STA family.”
The school district also announced this week plans to move to a four-day school week.
The total enrollment in Marion County is nearly 42,000 students, 26,000 of whom are eligible for school bus service that has been historically provided by the district. The original agreement with STA was to provide all transportation or only for certain routes. At least for now, the district will continue to operate the fleet.