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Indian River’s bus contract adds runs, driver training

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PHILADELPHIA — First Student’s bus contract with the Indian River Central School District will include cost-saving benefits and a tighter contract than Watertown-based Freeman Bus Corp. provided.

The new five-year contract, which starts July 1 with the Cincinnati-based company, will save the district enough money to add bus runs and includes specifics the previous contract lacked, including the requirement for a performance bond, driver penalties and training.

Because of what officials called an aggressive bid by First Student, the district is poised to expand its number of bus runs and add after-school busing back into the 2013-14 budget.

The current year’s contract with Freeman was budgeted for $3.9 million but would have increased next year with the population growth in and around Fort Drum. In total, next year’s First Student transportation contractual budget — which includes seven new runs — will be about $3.95 million.

Over the next five years, the district anticipates spending a total of $16.72 million for the home-to-school contract, $482,024 for the field trip and sports trip contract and $336,520 for summer transportation, according to Business Manager James R. Koch’s calculations.

Freeman Bus Corp. CEO Robert C. Freeman III confirmed First Student’s bid was “substantially lower” than his. However, he would not disclose how much his bid was, saying it was up to the district to reveal the amount.

“I’m disappointed by the decision,” he said.

He was told the bids were sent out because of the increasing cost of the contract. However, he said, it may have been noncompliance issues that led to the decision.

“The increase in the cost of the contract was due to the population growth in and around Fort Drum,” Mr. Freeman said.

He said even if Freeman were operating under the same contract next year at Indian River, the contract would have increased because Freeman charges by the mile and hour.

Transportation Director Richard Burr said the bids were not public record until the new contract is in place. After the contract starts, a Freedom of Information Act request will have to be filed to obtain the amount, he said.

The district, as with the previous contract, will provide buses, fuel, tires and a facility. The contractor provides drivers, monitors, mechanics and driver training.

To change the contract, the district by law had to solicit bids. Previous complaints against Freeman included mechanics not being trained to the district’s liking and an undersupply of bus drivers.

“As much as we attempted to please the district in the performance of the contract, it seemed we were not living up to their standards,” Mr. Freeman said.

He also said the contract setup, which included district personnel directly supervising his personnel, “sometimes led to a difficult environment.”

The district’s Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to accept First Student’s contract.

Mr. Koch said mechanic training will be tougher than it was under the Freeman Bus Corp. contract.

“First and foremost, I’m worried about student safety,” he said. “Can these guys fix brakes properly? Can they change a tire without it falling off the rim? That’s important.”

The new contract specifies the district will also buy bus engines and transmissions in most cases. The industry-standard software used to determine whether a bus passed inspection had to be specified in the language. Driver penalties for misbehavior, such as failing to pick up students without contacting parents, were also specified in the new contract.

A clause was added that gender identity and sexual preference were not to be discriminated against.

“That’s a little thing, but we wanted to know that standard was maintained,” Mr. Koch said.

There are 97 buses in the district’s fleet. According to Mr. Burr, the fleet will increase to 106 buses in July. That would require the list of 95 active drivers to grow as well.

A letter sent to the district’s transportation employees Friday outlined the changes and specified “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.”

Mr. Koch said those standards are basic, such as a physical and drug test, which should not be a problem for most employees.

However, First Student never sent the language about driver pay it was supposed to provide to the district. The information is not public record, according to Mr. Koch, and he did not know whether First Student planned to keep the same driver wages.

He recommended drivers bring their most recent pay stub when they meet with Kenneth G. Johnson, First Student state business development manager, to discuss their income.

Mr. Burr said wages will be determined on an individual basis.

Whomever the drivers decide to work for, Mr. Freeman had warm words for them.

“I believe my staff did an outstanding job in getting kids to and from school safely, and I’m proud of them all,” he said.

First Student contracts with the Gouverneur Central and Lisbon Central school districts, according to Mr. Johnson. Its largest contracts in the state are with the Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo city school districts.

“We look forward to working with the school district and doing a good job for them,” he said.

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