Originally published in The Weekly Packet, May 15, 2014
Choosing “local” over “corporate”
Union 76 signs bus contract with Andrea Brown, LLC
by Anne Berleant
Brooklin, Sedgwick and Deer Isle-Stonington will start the upcoming school year with brand new buses.
The school boards of each town, which collectively form School Union 76, each voted on April 29 to award a two-year bus contract to Andrea Brown, LLC.
Brown, a Sedgwick resident, was a former supervisor and manager with Laidlaw Bus Company (acquired by First Student in 2007). She currently transports special education students in the area.
The union chose “the local component over the corporate,” said Superintendent Mark Jenkins.
The union’s contract with First Student expires at the end of the school year, and the company’s lack of response to concerns prompted Union 76 to form a busing subcommittee in June 2013, according to a subcommittee report detailing the bid process.
Bussing was the “number one issue” aired by parents at a Deer Isle-Stonington public meeting following the Sandy Hook incident, subcommittee member and Deer Isle-Stonington board member Stephen York said.
The subcommittee was charged with addressing concerns centered on drivers, student safety, handling complaints and open communication and to provide value for tax dollars.
The hope was to “try to improve First Student,” York said.
After meeting with First Student regional manager Howard Anderson to discuss how to change what York said students described as “bus rides from hell,” York reported that First Student “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.”
Bussing complaints ranged from behavior of drivers, old buses with windows that failed to close and cameras that didn’t work and the unresponsiveness of First Student to parent and principal complaints.
“We got the sense [First Student] was convinced they were a monopoly,” without any competition, said Brooklin board member Frank Bianco.
At the same time, Andrea Brown LLC expressed interest in submitting a proposal, which she submitted in March. The subcommittee was skeptical of signing on with a start-up venture, according to its report.
“Regardless of concerns with First Student, there is no doubt they can put buses on the road,” the report states.
However, Brown provided supporting documents for her bid, including the purchase of 11 new 2015 Freightliner buses, with (working) cameras. In addition, she will provide criminal and Department of Health and Human Services vetting for all drivers.
Finally, her bid came in $2,740 below that of First Student, who failed to submit requested information on their vehicles, which currently are six to 10 years old with an average mileage of 120,000.
First Student also didn’t respond to requests for information on safe practices and supervision of drivers, York said.
In a response to questions emailed to First Student by Penobscot Bay Press, Corporate Communications Manager Stephanie Creech replied, “First Student entered the bid process in good faith and submitted a timely proposal. Specific concerns were addressed; timely, appropriate responses were provided as requested; and, plans for continuous improvement were clearly stated.”
First Student is “fulfilling the letter of the law,” Jenkins said. “We’re asking for more.”
What happens if Brown doesn’t deliver? Then, “we’re in the transport biz,” said Jenkins, explaining that the union would take over the contract.
The two-year contract is $1,027,386. Sedgwick and Brooklin will each pay from 22 to 24 percent of the total, with Deer Isle-Stonington paying the rest. The cost is about $8,000 over what Sedgwick and Brooklin had budgeted. (Deer Isle-Stonington has not yet voted on its 2014-15 budget.) The contract does not include special education or Hancock County Technical Center transportation.
The contract calls for 11 buses, one less than with First Student, but coordination and planning will balance that out, said Jenkins. In addition, Brown has two minivans that can be used for transportation to sports games. The subcommittee will meet monthly with Brown to monitor operations.
“The quality of bus service rests on the drivers,” noted Sedgwick Principal Don Buckingham. “Sedgwick drivers are excellent. I don’t want that to get lost.”