Penn Hills hires First Student to provide transportation

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Ninety-three Penn Hills bus drivers, aides and mechanics will be out of a job at the end of the school year.

The school board voted, 6-2, at Thursday's special meeting to outsource its busing to First Student Inc. Board members Joseph Bailey and Robert Hudak cast the two dissenting votes.

According to its website, First Student is the largest private bus operator in North America. The Cincinnati-based company contracts with a number of local school districts, including Woodland Hills and Gateway.

Penn Hills' director of business affairs Richard Liberto said the move would save the district $3.3 million the first year and from $1.4 million to $1.7 million yearly thereafter for the remainder of the five-year contract. The first-year savings figure includes the sale of the district's bus fleet to First Student.

Mr. Liberto said the school district's attorney talked with the union's attorney Tuesday morning, but that neither side would budge.

"We reached an impasse," he said. "We were at an impasse with health care. An impasse with salaries. We had no way to fund buying new buses."

The transit union's proposal would have saved the district $200,000 and involved the workers paying for 15 to 20 percent of their health insurance and taking wage freezes or reductions.

"We had nothing else to give up," said Gary Krapf, a Penn Hills bus driver for 25 years. "We gave them everything we had and they kept coming back to us and wanting us to give them more proposals, more this, more that. We had nothing else to give up, unless they wanted blood."

Bus drivers will be expected to finish working the remainder of the school year. They have been offered monetary incentives by the district to hold on to their accumulated sick days rather than take days off.

Mr. Krapf said he wouldn't count on that happening.

"Right now you've got 75 drivers in here that are so fired up ... don't be surprised if the schools aren't closed the next couple of days because we're not going to have enough drivers," he said. "I can guarantee you there's going to be drivers that are going to start calling off and not showing up for work. And we don't have enough backup drivers to cover up."

Board president Carl Barbarino, who voted in favor of outsourcing bus services, framed the issue as a choice between keeping teachers or keeping drivers.

"We're here to educate our kids and we cannot afford to lay off 56 teachers, increase class sizes to 30, 35 kids to a class," he said. "So it's a give and take area. And unfortunately we had to take this stance."

After the vote, transit union president Lori Krapf said she was crushed.

"I'm sad that I couldn't save people's jobs," she said, fighting back tears. "And all these people stand here and think it's a funny little game. And it's not a game. It's not about who's tougher ... it was about our livelihoods."

Zak Koeske, freelance writer: .


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