The Johnston School Committee awarded the district’s $1.9 million transportation contract to First Student at a special meeting last Thursday. First Student was the lowest bidder, coming in more than $64,000 less than the next lowest bidder.
Adding Johnston to its list of routes brings First Student’s Rhode Island presence to 15 school districts. They will be in Johnston for at least three years, under the current contract, with two one-year extension options.
“We’re excited about coming back in,” said Clifton Johnson, director of business development at First Student.
Chairwoman Janice Mele amended the approval language to ensure that the buses provided by First Student are of the highest caliber, and are ready for the start of school.
“This is what we’re worried about – having buses that are unfit for the children to ride,” she said.
As detailed in the bid specifications, buses must be no older than seven years with a fleet average of five years. To avoid children left behind on buses, the vehicles include a sign that indicates an empty bus, with drivers responsible for checking before putting down the sign.
“That’s something we were very concerned with,” said committee member Robert LaFazia. “That needs to be checked out before the buses are left.”
These buses must also be equipped with GPS and cameras by the opening of school, and First Student must also agree to hire three office staff (two clerks and an office manager).
Dave Cournoyer, director of facilities, is hopeful that First Student might work out a deal to keep current Transportation Manager John Brown, who has worked under the current transportation provider, Durham School Services.
Should all of the bid specifications not be met, the district will fine First Student $100 per day, per bus, starting on the first day of school, until those requirements are met. The district has 26 buses.
“The pressure is on; we want those buses,” Cournoyer said.
Some committee members asked that the requirements be in place 10 days prior to the start of school, but Johnson said that equipping the buses for the first day would be challenging enough as it is.
“I’m prepared to order buses tomorrow, but it’s a very slow process because the state has laid people off,” he said.
The initial penalty suggested was much higher as well, with committee members proposing $500 per bus, per day. That, Johnson said, would have changed First Students’ bid altogether.
“That’s an exceedingly high liquidated damage. Had it been in the bid specs, we would have adjusted according to that,” he said.
Johnson planned to order the buses on Friday, April 27, and said they would not likely be delivered until the end of July. From there, some will need to be equipped with the updated technology, and it will take well into August for inspections to be completed. Still, First Student is hopeful that everything will be in place in time.
“We shouldn’t have any issues,” Johnson said. “We don’t expect to have to pay.”
The district currently employs 38 bus drivers, and First Student intends to hire those same drivers back for the 2012-2013 school year and beyond.
“Our intent is to hire all the existing employees,” Johnson said.
When asked if the employees would be receiving similar pay packages under the new company, Johnson said the drivers’ paychecks would be “competitive to what they’re getting now.”
In other school news, the district’s food service provider, Aramark, is running in the black this year, to the delight of the School Committee.
“We’ve, so far, had a very profitably and productive school year,” said Aramark food service Director Jessica Patrolia.
Compared to last year, Aramark has served 89 more meals per day this year, amounting to additional daily revenue of $370. Altogether, the food service budget is $34,000 ahead of where they were at this time last year. This year also has seen an income of $50,000 more in grant funding, for nutrition and exercise programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 and the new smoothie program at Ferri Middle School.
“We’ve made some real strides,” Patrolia said, adding that the past five out of seven months have netted a profit.
Committee member Joseph Rotella, who has been vocal in his criticism of Aramark, said a tasting last week of the new menu left him feeling good about school meals in Johnston.
“They were actually pretty good,” he said of a whole-wheat pizza that he used as an example in his criticism last year. “If they continue to put out the quality of food that we tested this evening, you won’t hear anything from me.”