Members of the Greater Latrobe School Board heard impassioned arguments from competing company executives, drivers, mechanics, members of the public and more regarding the approval of a new transportation contract on Monday.
The district intended to award a new multi-year pupil transportation service contract at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, but couldn’t come to an agreement on a new president during the board’s reorganization meeting (see related story), also held on Monday.
Because the board couldn’t decide on a new president, that opened the door to a public information session regarding the transportation contract, and not a vote.
Greater Latrobe Business Administrator Dan Watson gave a presentation from the district’s point of view regarding the new transportation contract and then almost an hour of public comment followed, as an overflow, standing-room-only crowd of 50-plus residents packed Greater Latrobe’s Center for Student Creativity.
The board is scheduled to reconvene, 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, for its reorganization meeting, followed by the Committee of the Whole, tentatively set for 7:30 p.m. where directors could potentially decide on a new deal.
“I know you have questions that I might not address during this presentation, but we’ll do our best to answer your questions and put any concerns you might have at ease,” Watson said.
The district’s current transportation provider is A.J. Myers & Sons and their contract expires June 30, 2020. When the deal was approved on Nov. 20, 2012, it was a 6.17% decrease over what the district previously paid and saved less than four mills in six years. There was also another deal for mini-bus vans and vans awarded to DMJ Transportation Inc. in 2012.
“Transportation services and costs are extremely important to our school district,” Watson said. “We’re always looking for reliable, safe transportation for our students while being fiscally responsible to our taxpayers, so our relationship with our transportation provider is a critical one.
“In addition to that, our transportation costs make up 6% of our general operating costs, so we definitely don’t take it lightly.”
Watson explained that prior to a contract expiring, standard procedure is to enter into an early-bird discussion, which the district did with A.J. Myers & Sons.
“That basically states that you want to remain our transportation provider, and if so, what terms and conditions are you willing to offer us to make it favorable, so that we just automatically renew with you,” Watson said.
Watson said that transportation contracts are not equipment, which means the district doesn’t have to take the low bidder like a competitive bidding process.
Watson said A.J. Myers & Son’s early-bird offer was a seven-year contract extension with a requested addition of a fuel clause that would cost the district roughly $140,000 more per year. Additionally, year one of the deal called for an 8% increase, while years 2-7 were at 2.85% per year.
“We found that it wasn’t very enticing for us to enter into this early-bird conversation because it would end up costing us more money than we felt we could allocate towards that service,” Watson said.
Greater Latrobe sent a request for proposal in March and received offers from A.J. Myers & Sons, DMJ Transportation Inc. and First Student Inc., which was the district’s provider before signing with A.J. Myers & Sons in 2012.
Watson said the district wanted to change from a three-run bus schedule to a two-run plan and equip all buses with GPS units. On Oct. 25, the district received a final proposal from DMJ Transportation and six days later from A.J. Myers & Sons. First Student stood by an offer submitted in May.
On Nov. 11, district administrators held a meeting with DMJ Transportation, the low bidder, which Greater Latrobe has had a relationship with for a little more than a decade.
“One of our main concerns was, how would you retain and maintain good drivers?” Watson said. “We wanted to make sure that if we make the transition, we would be able to equip the buses with good drivers. All the feedback we received, we felt was positive.”
All board members initially heard the contract presentation in executive session on Nov. 12 and directors were scheduled to vote on Monday.
“We couldn’t kick this down the road much longer because if we do, the new vendor has a timeline they have to follow to order brand new buses, and that just doesn’t happen overnight,” Watson said. “There’s a process in place and we needed to make sure we got this done sooner rather than later.”
A.J. Myers & Sons offered a five-year proposal, which included 72 and 84-passenger buses, mini buses, vans and more.
The district’s current 2019-20 cost is $2.7 million and year one of the A.J. Myers & Sons offer called for a 2% increase of $54,000. Years 2 and 4 called for increases of 2.94% and years 3 and 5 at 1.47%. Watson said the contract was a $307,000 increase in five years, or 11.3% total, and an average increase of 2.2%.
The DMJ Transportation contract was also a five-year proposal with 72 and 84-passenger buses, mini buses, vans and more.
The district’s current 2019-20 cost is $2.7 million and year one of the DMJ Transportation proposal called for a 5.9% decrease, or $160,000 less. Years 2-5 called for increases of 2.75%, ranging from $70,000 to $76,000.
“In Year 3, we’re still under that $2.7-million mark and in Year 5 it goes up to $2.8 million,” Watson said.
He added that it’s a $132,844 increase over a five-year period, or a 4.8% total increase with an average increase per year of 0.98%.
First Student’s proposal, submitted in May, was a total $774,000 increase in five years, or 28.45% with an average increase of 5.7% per year.
Watson compared the proposals A.J. Myers & Sons submitted in February — the early-bird offer — and the final October contract, noting the district would’ve paid $2 million more throughout that five-year contract period.
“That’s why we went through the (request for proposal) process that we were not required to go through,” Watson said.
Resident Chastity DiFrancesco wasn’t satisfied with Watson’s figures, noting her daughter attends Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
“I didn’t hear anything about how this affects the students,” DeFrancesco said. “I hear percentages and dollar bills, but a GPS doesn’t drive my student to school. I’m not putting a number on my child’s head. These kids rely on familiarity, consistency and routine, and that provides them with a safe atmosphere.”
David Myers, president of A.J. Myers & Sons, asked the board to table the contract “for one or two months,” and do some investigating of “things they found out.”
“We’d like to present them not in the public, but at a private setting between the board members and administration,” Myers said. “We’d love to talk to you.”
James Myers, vice president of the company, said that when A.J. Myers & Sons first signed with Greater Latrobe, it saved the district $1.3 million in five years.
“Five years later, you guys want us to take another million dollar cut on top of that,” James Myers said. “Our costs keep going up. I don’t know how the other company can cut $1 million out of the price of a contract in five years and sustain the serviceability that we have and the maintenance program and drivers. We’re a family-owned company and we’ve been in business since 1950. We didn’t get here by having bad service at a competitive price.”
Bill Myers, also with A.J. Myers & Sons, questioned whether DMJ Transportation could fill additional runs, like athletic events and field trips, on short notice.
“It’s not an easy task,” Bill Myers said.
Lisa Barron, with DMJ Transportation, said the company has worked with the district for the past 19 years. She said the company provides service to 17 different school districts with 196 vehicles and 200 drivers. She added that DMJ Transportation has transportation contracts with Mount Pleasant Area and Greensburg Salem.
“Our technology and our people are way ahead of our current competitors,” Barron said. “We are building a regional transportation company that is going to provide services above and beyond what you get from your current contractor. We have the experience to take on this contract and hopefully some of the drivers will agree to come with us.”
There were drivers in attendance who supported A.J. Myers & Sons and were outspoken about loyalty to their current company. Barron said when DMJ Transportation moved to Mount Pleasant Area, the company retained 90% of its drivers and 85% of the drivers from Greensburg Salem.
“We have a strong belief in taking care of our drivers,” Barron said. “None of the drivers at Greensburg Salem and Mount Pleasant received a pay cut, and our drivers at Mount Pleasant are making more than your drivers, currently. We would welcome drivers to come over and hope they agree to do so.”
Christy Riffle, a driver with A.J. Myers & Sons, said that she will not work at DMJ Transportation, along with other co-workers, who pledged loyalty to A.J. Myers & Sons.
“We have some of the best mechanics at our garage, who maintain the buses at the highest standard,” Riffle said. “They address any bus issues as soon as possible and spare no expense to get parts needed. As you prepare to vote, please note that I might be out of a job at Latrobe, and that’s OK. But our company supports us, and we’re going to support our company, so you can find 50 other drivers to drive for DMJ.”
Craig Ransel is a mechanic for A.J. Myers & Sons. He was also a prior mechanic at First Student.
“Whenever I started with Myers, I walked up to him and asked, ‘What is my budget per bus, per month?’” Ransel said. “That’s what I had at First Student, a budget per bus, per month. David Myers told me, ‘You fix them and make them safe. It doesn’t matter what the cost is.’” And that’s what I do.”
Barron previously said that six mechanics routinely see the buses on a monthly basis. Matt Kraynick’s children attend Greater Latrobe and he’s also been employed by DMJ Transportation as the safety coordinator for almost four years. Kraynick, a retired trooper for the Pennsylvania State Police, said he brought his experience through the state police to DMJ and conducts routine spot checks.
“The drivers are more than capable to provide the level of transportation to students with special needs,” Kraynick said. “It’s a family-owned company and they take care of their employees as their own family.”
One driver said she has worked at DMJ Transportation for 16 years.
“There’s a reason why DMJ has the contracts that we have now,” she said. “We’ve heard for years from First Student and Myers that they’re never going to come work for us and then they do. And if they love the students like they claim to, they will work for DMJ.”
Wes Johnson said that he previously did not want to move to DMJ Transportation after starting with First Student.
“I didn’t know much about them and I just didn’t want to change,” Johnson said. “I did go to DMJ when we took the Greensburg contract and this is my third year. We do an excellent job and they really do treat their drivers well. I hope a lot of drivers come over and join the team.”
Other drivers dissented, adding the team at A.J. Myers & Sons are a proven group of professional, dedicated bus drivers, who have given Greater Latrobe quality service. One questioned whether or not DMJ Transportation would have enough drivers to cover routes if they are awarded the contract. Another questioned a conflict of interest with Greater Latrobe administrators and DMJ Transportation.
“There’s no member of this board involved with any of the busing contracts,” board member Steve LoCascio said. “The nine people who have a vote, nobody has family involved.”
But it’s a significant decision, regardless of when it takes place. Andrew Repko asked the board to also think of the taxpayers when making their decision.
“I don’t have a dog in the fight with either company, but I have a dog in the fight because I pay taxes in this district,” Repko said. “I pray you do the right thing by the taxpayers.”