The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Bus outsourcing option sparks U-46 union stand
By Seth Hancock
School District U-46 could save $3.9 million over the next three years if the competitive process wins out, but the District U-46 Transportation Union (DUTU) may stand in the way of a possible outsourcing plan of approximately half the district’s transportation.
The Examiner obtained the requests for proposal (RFP) from three transportation companies through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. From the RFPs, Durham and RichLee Vans Inc. both declined to submit a proposal but First Student did.
First Student submitted a 308-page proposal, and Fred Smith, director of business development, wrote in the cover letter: “We have outlined the many ways First Student will use our global and local resources to develop a customized approach for School District U-46, stressing the importance of flexibility and cooperation in order to meet your needs and goals to manage safe, efficient, world-class pupil transportation in the communities you serve. As one of the largest pupil transportation providers in Illinois, and the largest bus company in the United States, we bring a customer service and safety focused approach to fulfill your student transportation needs.”
Smith further wrote that First Student would provide compliance to state law, a stable driving force, operational efficiency, excellent labor relations and cost savings.
“Our proposal indicates that District U-46 will save approximately $3.9 million over three years compared to the district’s current projections for the same period,” Smith wrote.
However, DUTU members have attended two consecutive Board of Education meetings to claim private sector companies cannot provide quality service while using arguments without any evidence to back up the claims.
At the Jan. 8 meeting, Laura Taets, the vice president of DUTU, threatened lawsuits if the district outsources and said “it was only a matter of time when the threat of outsourcing would become a reality here” after U-46 hired Ken Arndt as a part-time interim superintendent. Arndt previously was superintendent at D300 which outsourced transportation.
Taets raised an unrelated issue of former superintendent Connie Neale who received a huge salary bump in 2007 right before retiring which has meant a huge cost to taxpayers in pension and retirement costs. Donna Smith, the board’s president who is seeking a fifth term in the upcoming board election, was the only current board member on it at the time, and she voted for the salary increase.
At the December board Taets used students for the union perspective as the possible outsourcing would include special education students.
“Do not outsource the special ed routes to a for-profit company that will cut corners and sacrifice the safety of our most precious students, our most vulnerable of our district,” Taets said.
Deborah Romero, a U-46 resident and bus driver in Palatine, said: “If you outsource transportation to a for-profit company, each of your former employees and their families will be hurt for the rest of their lives.”
Heather Weiss, DUTU’s president, read a letter she said was from a parent: “Private companies will continue to raise costs to maximize their profits while not necessarily increasing quality.”
First Student highlighted in its proposal several areas in which it could improve efficiency, two areas in particular being currently overcrowded facilities and usage of only one radio frequency in U-46.
Because of overcrowding, U-46 must shuttle employees and First Student said it could eliminate the shuttling which would make the costs “substantially reduced.” First Student’s proposal said it had “identified two potential facilities” within the district which it could use.
The proposal said that the district has over 300 drivers communicating over one radio frequency, and U-46 has “a second frequency which is currently available and being paid for” but “is not used because there is no space for a second dispatch office.” First Student said it would be able to utilize both frequencies making the management of drivers more efficient.
First Student said it has 25 locations in the Chicago area and 2,500 drivers near U-46 who “can easily be deployed to cover any potential short-term shortages.”
Although DUTU’s members have claimed outsourcing would mean inviting outsiders into the district, Fred Smith wrote in his cover letter that First Student “designed our proposal with each of these stakeholders in mind” and The Examiner recently spoke with representatives of the company who said it hires on average 95 percent of employees from districts who outsource with them.
At the December board meeting, a DUTU member said U-46 may violate Illinois Public Act 095-0241 if it outsources but “First Student is well versed” on the act and “successfully converted a 150 bus operation in 2013 and will bring our proven process to District U-46” according to the proposal.
DUTU has used only anecdotal stories as evidence for its claims by raising bus accidents from private companies that have been reported. A previous FOIA request showed that U-46 bus drivers have had 700 accidents/incidents over the last 10 years.
The U-46 bus driver’s union also has claimed that the process hasn’t been transparent.
The Examiner emailed Weiss to attempt to get some information and noted that DUTU’s evidence has all been anecdotal and she was asked if she could provide any actual evidence, hard data, that would back up DUTU’s claims.
U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said at the December meeting that any official proposal that may come before the board would be transparent, and the fact that DUTU has been attending meetings and knows that the district has been seeking bids appears to show that the process has been transparent. Interestingly, in contrast, Sanders made a change in district practice on a highly controversial issue earlier this school year behind closed doors without any input from parents and the public.
Considering there was no transparency on a controversial change in which parents were not given any say but DUTU is fully aware of the possibility of outsourcing long before any proposal has come before the board, Weiss was asked why DUTU feels this hasn’t been a transparent process?
Weiss did not respond to the email.