May 21, 2014 at 2:00 PM
**CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article stated that the overall ten-year savings would be $828,780. However, that was incorrect. It is a savings of $828,780 PER YEAR savings. We apologize for the error.
Though several residents voiced concerns once again about obtaining First Student, Inc. as a transportation provider, the Methacton School Board voted 7-1 to follow the administration’s recommendation to do so. With only James Phillips against, the board agreed that saving an estimated $828,780 per year over ten years was worth the change.
Handouts highlighting the costs, comparing both an in-house (continue to employ the drivers as Methacton employees) versus hiring First Student to handle the needs of the district, were available for public review. The board also was given copies of the costs.
Unlike previous meetings, details such as a “Termination for Convenience Clause,” were outlined. The clause would allow the school district to give a six-month notice for any termination of the contract.
Additionally the contracts would cap annual increases to 2.5 percent per year in the first five years and 1.7 percent per year in years six to ten.
“I know no board member is taking this lightly,” said board president S. Christian Nascimento. “I’ve seen this board do its homework on this issue. It is practically impossible to respond to every email we get, but I have seen them asking questions digging into the issue.”
Some board members still had a few questions.
Mark O’Neill wanted to know if “most current drivers will be hired by First Student,” to which officials said yes. He also reaffirmed that the drivers would be hired at the “same hourly rate” and the answer again was yes.
“Will they have the same buses?” asked O’Neill.
“Yes, with the exception of those that they replace in the fleet due to age,” said Stuart Whiteleather, director of business services for the district.
Public comment brought forth residents such as Joe Bickleman, of Audubon, who highlighted a number of districts that had released an “RFP” or request for proposal, to seek new driving sources after a time with First Student.
First Student’s Randy Williams said that was not the case, and that often times districts send out an RFP to double-check their current rates, to see if what they were getting was at a fair price.
Williams did say that some local districts went with another company after the RFP process, as they were willing to come in 16 percent lower than First Student in cost. Williams said that cost “came off the employees’ backs” and that First Student was not willing to do that.
Many had questions regarding the vote, which was tabled during the last school board meeting, as previously reported by LP TAP on May 6, but those questions went unanswered.
Methacton’s Solicitor Frank Bartle advised the board and administration that this was a time for public comments only, and not a question and answer session. They were instructed not to speak, and no one did during the public comment session.
Bickleman specifically asked why his emails and questions remained unanswered, to which Methacton Superintendant David A. Zerbe could only shrug in response to.
Other concerned parents, such as Jeff Butler, of Eagleville, said he felt promises from First Student were too good to be true.
“Nothing against these two gentlemen here,” said Butler, motioning to the representatives from First Student. “They have done their job well; maybe they’ve done a little too good of a job. My common-sense warning has gone off the charts. If it sounds too good to be true, than maybe it is.”
Current driver and Collegeville resident Frank McMullen painstakingly went through each one of Whiteleather’s positive points, besides cost, that were made at a previous presentation.
From technology positives to history, McMullen pointed out various facts regarding the current status of its drivers.
“You talked about a long-term contract,” said McMullen. “You’ve had a real long-term contract here. I did a little research. The first transportation what is now the district dates back to 1916.”
Other residents voiced concern that the finance committee meetings had been canceled for its last two schedule times, limiting even further the public’s chance to ask questions and have them answered.
Zerbe said that the cancellations were only a result of a board member’s resignation, as that member was the head of the committee.
After many statistics, suggestions, and comments from the public and drivers alike, the board took its vote. The action, labeled 6.1 on “board action items” for the May 20 agenda, was listed as such:
“Approve the Administration to outsource district transportation and authorize Administration to negotiate the contract with First Student, Inc. and to have the solicitor prepare a document for final Board adoption.”
That item was moved to a vote by board vice president, Herbert Rothe III, and seconded by Brenda Hackett. The motion passed 7-1 with only Phillips voting against it. Board member Joyce E. Petrauskas had resigned prior to the meeting’s start without details or explanation from the board, resulting in only eight voting members, all of which were present.
Editor's Note: The first version of this story was posted at 11:45 p.m. on May 20. An updated version was later released to provide the story to more readers. Timestamps attached to this story may not reflect that.