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Indian River Central switches to First Student transportation contract

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PHILADELPHIA — Freeman, out. First Student, in.

The Indian River Central School District Board of Education voted quickly and unanimously Thursday night to enter into a five-year transportation contract with Cincinnati-based First Student.

Business Manager James R. Koch said the district will save 5 percent with the change and still will be able to provide seven more routes and late runs. Indian River’s budget for contract busing this year is $3.9 million.

“First Student is the largest student transporter in North America,” he said after the motion passed. “They aggressively bid for the contract. We want the employees to know there will be a position open to them.”

The move is a big blow to Freeman, a longtime Watertown-based company that also serves the Watertown City School District and many others in Northern New York. Indian River, which runs nearly 100 buses and is poised to expand, has been a major account for Freeman.

The new contract with First Student begins July 1 and will last until June 30, 2018.

The board decided to solicit bids for a new contract in October. “There are feelings, internal feelings, about the current contract that we hold,” Mr. Koch said in a previous interview. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”

Complaints included mechanics’ not being trained to the district’s liking and a low supply of bus drivers.

The district received bids Feb. 7 from Freeman Bus Corp., First Student, Durham School Services and Birnie Bus Service Inc.

“These were evaluated over a period of six to seven hours,” Mr. Koch said, adding that Freeman did not get the award because its bid was not low enough.

A letter being sent to the district’s transportation employees today outlines the changes and says that “each Freeman employee who meets First Student’s employment standards will be offered a position to meet the needs of the firm in fulfilling its service commitment to the district.”

The letter from the school board says the district will do everything possible to make the transition a smooth one.

Freeman Bus Corp. began providing transportation for the district in 1983. After a brief time with Laidlaw International, Indian River switched back to Freeman about 10 years ago.

At that time, Mr. Koch said, 98 percent of Laidlaw employees working for the district stayed on to work under Freeman.

Both Freeman Bus Corp. owner Robert C. Freeman III and First Student state business development manager Kenneth G. Johnson were at the meeting.

“We’re excited to work with the district,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Koch recognized the years of service Freeman provided the district, saying that the change was emotional.

Mr. Freeman replied: “I want to thank the district for all the years of commitment to Freeman Bus.”

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