School Bus Driver Union Wants District to Pay Instead of Contractor
No Alaska students are riding on school busses right now, as school buildings are closed, and lessons continue through distance delivery. That means bus drivers and attendants are not working their normal routes. While school meal programs are keeping 60 bus drivers busy, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s bus contractor, First Student, is not paying the other 115 drivers and attendants. Now the drivers’ union wants the district, not the contractor, to pay the drivers who aren’t working.
School bus drivers and attendants are not employees of the school district; they work for a transportation contractor, First Student.
There is a line in the 2016 contract between First Student, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District that lets the district pay a reduced rate to the bus company when schools are closed. Anything less than 170 student contact days in a school year.
“It was more or less if school was cancelled for a week because of snow days or rain. It wasn’t designed to cover a global pandemic like we’re in.”
That’s Teamsters Business Representative Jeremy Holan. The Teamsters Union represents school bus drivers who work for First Student. He says the district should use that clause to give the contractor more money to pay drivers.
But Andreu DeGraw, the district’s Chief Operations Officer says this is not the time to increase the burden on taxpayers.
“We know that taxpayers are funding public education in the borough, and our job is to be as careful and meticulous as we can in the spending of those resources. Those are precious dollars.”
The school district receives a pupil transportation grant of $11.7 million from the State Department of Education and Early Development. The district spends about $14 million per year on transportation… even this year, DeGraw says, with some busing savings during the school closure.
“We will still spend significantly more than what the state gives us for transportation.”
DeGraw says the district is making contract payments to First Student about $50,000 per day, or about $1.1 million per month.
Right now only 30 bus routes are being driven to help distribute food to children during the school closure. Any child under 18 can get breakfast and lunch at locations across the borough. About 60 drivers and attendants are in the busses that deliver the food. DeGraw says the reduced rate the district is paying First Student is about 75 percent of the normal rate.
But Teamsters Business Representative Jeremy Holan says the district should take advantage of the CARES Act try to pay the contractor “to the greatest extent practicable.”
“Instead of paying, like the CARES Act is requiring of them, they are opting to use this lower rate, which is then harming our neighbors, bus drivers and attendants who take care of our kids.”
Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March to bailout agencies damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. FNSBSD will eventually get about $2,936,470 of that federal assistance once it is approved by the Alaska Legislature. https://education.alaska.gov/news/COVID-19/caresact/CARES%20Act%20Allocations%204.27.2020.pdf
First Student did not comment on this story this week. Corporate spokepeople had not responded to questions about applying for CARES Act relief, however the local Location Manager Ruben Reyes wrote in a message that First Student “appreciates the partnership with the school district and we value our employees.”
The FNSBSD contract with First Student will end in 2021, and a new contractor, Durham will begin a 10-year contract in fall that year.