When it comes to their child’s bus driver, most parents are looking for consistency; for the same person to show up each school-day morning and afternoon. However, a change of bus company is now in the works in Falmouth and it has left some bus drivers wary.
The Falmouth Public School District signed its most-recent transportation contract with First Student in 2015 and extended its three-year contract to five years.
The district, in following the state’s Chapter 30B procurement laws, went out to competitive bid on the contract and now must negotiate with the lowest bidder, Lucini Bus Lines of West Bridgewater.
In a presentation to the Falmouth School Committee Tuesday, January 14, Patrick Murphy, director of finance and facilities for the schools, said the district engaged Richard Labrie, a public school transportation consultant identified by the Cape Cod Collaborative, to review the efficiency of general education transportation routes and services.
“A full written report will be provided by the consultant, but his summarized conversation commented there was no significant recommendations for efficiency improvements given the district’s desire to run a high-quality level of service relative to other districts,” Mr. Murphy wrote in a memo to the committee.
The consultant is also updating and overseeing the transportation bid process for the same set of services, Mr. Murphy wrote, noting Falmouth has 27 buses in a three-tier route system.
“Since Falmouth and Sandwich are on the same contract cycle and chose to use the same consultant, we agreed to go out to bid with similar time frames using similar bid documents. This reduced the cost of the consulting work,” he wrote.
Falmouth has worked with First Student, a London-based conglomerate, for more than 15 years.
“By 2015, First Student had effectively secured monopoly status by winning nearly all of the Cape’s district transportation contracts. This lack of competitive vendor response to public school transportation bids has since become a statewide problem recognized by the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education,” Mr. Murphy wrote.
Since 2014 Cape Cod Collaborative “has significantly grown its own transportation program while Cape districts have also attracted private vendors to the region,” Mr. Murphy wrote. “In fact, with the loss of the Falmouth and Sandwich contracts, First Student may no longer have any presence on the Cape as of Fiscal Year 2021.”
The district advertised the bid in November, and multiple potential vendors attended a bidders’ meeting last month.
“All interested vendors received copies of the most recent collectively bargained bus driver contract,” Mr. Murphy wrote. “It should be noted that prevailing wage rates were expected to be used in the calculation of bids by all responding vendors. Given the ongoing regional, statewide and national demand for school bus drivers, it is expected that all current bus drivers in good standing will be offered a position.”
Three vendors submitted bids to both Falmouth and Sandwich for a three-year period: First Student at $6,559,116; Five Star Transportation at $6,440,733; and Lucini Bus Lines at $6,313,155.
There is the possibility of a two-year extension, which would bring a total five-year contract close to $10 million.
“The first-year increase by all three vendors exceeded 10 percent. This double-digit increase is due to changes in state law increasing the cost of benefits as well as the fact that Falmouth had been paying slightly below market rates over the past two years,” Mr. Murphy wrote, adding that Lucini won the contracts for Falmouth and Sandwich on the same day.
After Mr. Murphy’s presentation, David Buzanoski of Falmouth, a bus driver for First Student, told the committee he and other drivers are concerned about their jobs and cautioned against changing transportation providers for what he called “a relatively small cost savings.”
Mr. Buzanoski cited First Student’s excellent safety record as well as the dedication of the drivers, many of whom are Falmouth residents.
“We’re more than just bus drivers; we’re protectors of students,” he said.
Michele Parker of Falmouth, who has been a bus driver for 33 years, told the committee she is “heartbroken about the change” and that she might not return to driving in Falmouth if she will not be working for First Student, which has provided her with job security, safe-driving bonuses and health insurance.
Michael McLeavy of Plymouth, location manager for First Student, also complimented the Falmouth bus drivers on their dedication.
Superintendent Lori S. Duerr said the district’s decision to go out to bid on the transportation contract was not about saving money. Instead, she said, state procurement law requires it.
“We’ve been very happy with First Student. We extended our contract to five years. It’s not about saving money. We’re doing what we have to do by law,” she said. “We value very deeply our drivers, who have always gone above and beyond for our students and families.”
If Lucini, as the lowest bidder, meets all the contract conditions and requirements, then the district must negotiate with that company and cannot reconsider the other bidders at this point, Dr. Duerr said.
Mr. Labrie is handling references and due diligence reviews as part of the contract negotiation. He will present his full efficiency report to the school committee at an upcoming meeting, Mr. Murphy said.
“There’s no magic change to our efficiencies. His [Mr. Labrie’s] overall finding is that we do a pretty good job running our buses and transportation services in Falmouth,” Mr. Murphy said.
“Greg Kennedy [of Cape Cod Collaborative] and I are also reaching out to colleagues and beginning conversations with Lucini to come up to speed on their operations. It is expected that we will have a contract to review and be signed within the next month. The contract would start in August,” Mr. Murphy wrote in his memo.