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Driving a Hard Bargain

Private companies like Laidlaw transport kids to schools across the country. But more and more districts are finding the problems outweigh the supposed cost savings.

For the 15 years that Donna Mitchner worked as a bus driver with the Grand Rapids Public School system in Michigan, she enjoyed being what she calls “an insider.”

 “I was connected to the school,” says Mitchner. “I knew the teachers, administrators, the kids, their parents, the security people—everybody it took to [help me] do my job.” 

That changed in June 2005, when a private bus company hired by the school board took control of district transportation services. When the contract was signed with Dean Transportation, the district fired approximately 175 workers, who were then rehired by the company to perform their old jobs, though with fewer benefits and for less pay. Even worse, teachers and others began seeing the drivers as private employees, not public workers.  

“We’re outsiders now,” laments Mitchner, who was a steward and longtime member of the Grand Rapids Educational Support Personnel Association (GRESPA). “We don’t get the same information anymore from teachers, [for example] on how to deal with a child who has a problem.”

From transportation and food service to maintenance and security, a wide variety of private companies are attempting to take over work traditionally performed by school district employees in public schools across the country. NEA opposes privatization because of the threat it poses to quality education, the well-being of students, and accountability of public schools to community members.

Mitchner’s experience in Grand Rapids is typical of what happens when a for-profit company takes over school transportation services—one of the fastest-growing areas of privatization. The largest such contractor is Laidlaw International, whose Laidlaw Education Services subsidiary now serves about 1,000 school districts and more than 2 million children each day.

“From my experience with Laidlaw, turnover is high and morale is low,” says Karen Mahurin, president of NEA’s National Council for Education Support Professionals. She says that along with shortchanging drivers when it comes to pay, sick leave, and job security, Laidlaw doesn’t have to follow the same rules as districts in terms of ensuring student safety. “Laidlaw drivers are hired oftentimes without background checks, which school districts are by law bound to do,” she says.

Mahurin says that Laidlaw drivers are also often less familiar with local bus routes, neighborhoods, school families, and students. “I have encountered Laidlaw drivers who do not like children,” she says matter-of-factly. “I advise those drivers to get another job, because the kids don’t like them either, which can cause disciplinary problems, which then becomes a safety issue.”

Based in Naperville, Illinois, Laidlaw was founded in 1959 as a freight transport company. From 1984 to 1994, Laidlaw bought more than 100 school bus companies in the United States and Canada. Since 1995, the acquisition of Mayflower Contract Services, National School Bus Service, Charterways Transportation, and Vancom nearly doubled Laidlaw’s position in the student transportation market. More than 45,000 employees now operate from 580 locations in 36 states and six Canadian provinces.

“Private companies like Laidlaw are in it to make money,” says Steve Spica, GRESPA president. “Our members are in it for the children. Sure, they want to earn a living wage, but they often live in the same school district where they work, vote, and shop.”

Laidlaw claims that almost 35 percent of U.S. districts and 70 percent of Canadian school systems have outsourced transportation services. One of Laidlaw’s selling points is that its newer fleets are less expensive to run. With over 40,000 buses, Laidlaw claims to offer huge economies of scale in addition to staff, overhead, and drivers that can be shared among several districts.

“They always make those claims during the bidding process,” says Spica, who has worked in custodial and maintenance services for almost 30 years. “Then costs go up and service quality drops. Superintendents make long-term deals, but then they leave the district and the rest of us are stuck with their mess.” 

With private bus companies, "you never know who is driving the children," says local president Steve Spica..
Photo: Adam Bird

News accounts detail that across the country, Laidlaw has had its share of service problems over the years. In 2003, two incidents involving a child being left aboard a school bus at the end of a route occurred in Hillside, New Jersey. In Bibb County, Georgia, school officials canceled their contract with Laidlaw after the superintendent said, “we just don’t believe that Laidlaw has effectively managed the busing system.”

Some Laidlaw buses carrying students in Arizona had ongoing safety problems, including broken latches on emergency exits and broken stop arms, according to inspection records and drivers. Some drivers were willing to risk their jobs with Laidlaw to make their concerns public.

Service problems at two high schools in Lincolnwood, Illinois, went up by about 50 percent after Laidlaw took over. Drivers missed stops and left some students stranded, while allowing others to ride seated on the floor of overcrowded buses.

In 2002, children in the Waltham district near Boston were left waiting at bus stops for as long as an hour, according to parents and school officials. One parent told the Boston Globe that “every day there is a different driver in the morning, a different [one] in the afternoon. Every day [the school bus driver] comes at a different time and a different way.”

In some districts, this track record catches up with Laidlaw. After consistently poor service, the Martin County School Board in Florida ended its three-year relationship with the company. The board’s unanimous decision not to extend Laidlaw’s three-year, $12 million contract came amid heated controversy about the company’s operations and hiring practices. It was reported that a Laidlaw bus driver transported students for more than seven months after being arrested on a felony burglary charge and being accused by middle school students of sexual harassment.

With private bus companies, “you never know who is driving the children,” Spica says. “We knew our drivers were well-trained and dependable.”

Then there’s the toll on employees. For GRESPA members, privatization meant that some drivers lost 2,000 hours of accumulated sick leave and 20 years of seniority, as well as having to switch to a new, lower pay schedule.

Mitchner’s hourly salary dropped from $16.39 when she worked for the district to $12.99 when she was rehired by Dean Transportation. Under her new contract, she and other drivers have no life insurance or retirement plan. Their accumulated retirement and pay benefits were frozen. 

“I’d be making at least $17 an hour today if the district hadn’t privatized,” says Mitchner, who was forced to join a so-called “union” organized by Dean. To be rehired, former Grand Rapids drivers had to join the company union or lose the opportunity to work.

“The form to join the union was right there with the job application,” Mitchner says. Annual dues for the Dean union are $10. Union representatives are not elected, but appointed by company executives. Mitchner has to drive 40 minutes from Grand Rapids to attend one of the infrequent meetings in Lansing, where Dean is based.

“I knew I had representation with GRESPA,” Mitchner says. “Not now. They can just fire you. There’s no security with this group.”

It turns out, however, that breaking the GRESPA union was against the law. In September, a court ruled that Dean Transportation broke federal labor law when it refused to recognize the previous employees’ union, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

MEA filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board in October 2005 against the private bus company’s handling of the drivers. At press time, GRESPA was preparing to bargain a new contract for bus drivers.

John Rosales

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