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First Student bus deal promises better service for Buffalo — at a higher cost

The cost to transport nearly 29,000 children to and from school each day will go up for the Buffalo Public Schools under a new five-year contract worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

The school district is ready to strike a new deal with its transportation provider, First Student Inc., after the industry giant came in with a low bid of $244.3 million for five years and pledged better bus service, following complaints from parents as recently as this past fall.

Just three months ago, parent leaders complained that bus problems – like kids getting picked up late or not at all – had reached a “crisis.”

But since late October, when Superintendent Kriner Cash met with First Student President Paul Osland, bus service has improved and the district is “very hopeful” that will continue heading into a new contract, said Al Diamico, director of transportation for the school district.

“He listened to all our needs and definitely realizes that we’re big business here and one of their biggest contracts,” Diamico said.

In fact, the company has since jacked up hourly wages to lure more drivers, which has resulted in 111 hires, said Cheryl Kennedy, the district’s assistant director of transportation.

“We’re very comfortable that First Student is doing everything it can to alleviate the driver shortage problem, and we’re very hopeful it’s going to continue,” Kennedy said.

But it’s going to cost the district more – especially in the first year.

Some 618 buses are used to transport 28,998 students to 122 sites each day, including district, charter and private schools across the region.

The school system put their transportation contract out for bid in August and received four proposals.

First Student’s bid of $244.3 million over five years was the lowest by $21 million, Diamico said.

Still, the district will pay $46.9 million in the first year of the contract, which is a 15% hike from what it’s paying this year, said Geoffrey Pritchard, the district’s chief financial officer.

Though 87% of its transportation expenses are reimbursed by the state, the school district will have to come up with an additional $6.2 million for yellow bus service next year, he said.

The cost is projected to go up 2.3% in the second year and 1.8% in each of the remaining three years of the contract.

“This is something that in our budget we’re going to have to deal with this year, possibly through the use of fund balance or some other source of funding,” Pritchard said. “That particular growth goes beyond what we’ve historically seen in terms of growth we’ve had in that area.”

Wage increases for the drivers is part of the reason for the higher contract, Kennedy said.

Also, the previous contract that expires in June was made “ridiculously low” in an effort by First Student to keep the district’s business, Kennedy said.

“Now,” she said, “we’re paying for it.”

The proposed contract, however, does make an effort to improve service for students and parents, Kennedy said.

That includes more dispatchers and phone coverage at the bus terminals, which have long been a complaint among parents trying to call in for information about the whereabouts of buses.

In addition, tablets will be installed on buses to audibly give drivers turn-by-turn directions, as well as real-time traffic information for rerouting. The hope is that this will cut down on buses running late and new drivers getting lost.

Glitches also are being worked out in the GPS system, which allows parents to track on their cellphones when their child’s bus is running late, Kennedy said.

It’s a good contract, based on these added benefits and the $21 million difference between bids, said James Weimer, chief operating officer for the school system.

“This is an existing vendor that has been working with us,” Weimer said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, and you’re going to have that in a system this enormous, but now we can build on what they’ve done in the past and work with them.”

Terms of the contract are expected to be presented to the Board of Education next week for its approval.

“I love all this improvement, improvement, improvement,” said Central District Board Member Paulette Woods, “but I’m going to wait to see what the parents tell me.”

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