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Controversy Over Reinstating Bus Transportation

The community was on a fact-finding mission, attending the Dec. 3 school board meeting in the Black Box Theater, to decide how to vote on Dec. 15 – a “Yes” vote to purchase buses and refurbish the bus garage and resume in-house bus transportation, or a “No” vote that would be a vote to continue outsourcing bus transportation to Huntington Coach.
Why is the district holding the vote? The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) found the school district violated Section 209-a.1(d) by subcontracting public school, athletic, field trips and summer school transportation performed by Manhasset Educational Support Personnel Association (MESPA), and that MESPA conceded that the district had the right to subcontract private, parochial and special education transportation. The district was ordered to reinstate in-house transportation but a court found the request somewhat unreasonable as the bus fleet had been sold.
The district, found to be in violation of the Taylor Law, which ensures that public employment workers rights are protected, was ordered by PERB to hold a vote on the proposition. The community will decide if the district will once again be in the transportation business.
The PERB order states that if the restoration of the unit work to unit employees is impossible due to taxpayer disapproval of the purchase of buses and other equipment necessary to restore the work to MESPA, then the district must “make comparable work available to all displaced unit members, without loss of work to any current unit employees, or pay the displaced unit employees all back wages and benefits, with interest at the maximum legal rate, less interim earnings, until such time as comparable unit work becomes available.”
At the Dec. 3 meeting there were requests for a copy of the detailed analysis of how the numbers were arrived at—the meat behind the numbers in order to make an educated decision. Some had concern the data provided in the last go round, voting for outsourcing, was flawed. Others wondered what the rush was to have this vote if all the numbers were all not available.
Dr. William Shine, assistant to the superintendent, conducted the slide show and ran the meeting. (Please see Page 5 for a breakdown of major issues covered at the meeting.) The administration and full board were in attendance, but said very little. Also present was Robert T. Pudlewski, president, Fleet OPS Consulting, LLC, and a consultant for Seyfarth Shaw Attorneys, who was available for questions, and who appeared to support outsourcing. A benefit of contracted transportation was said to be that the annual increases are capped to the CPI and it was said the average increase for MESPA over the past four years was five percent. In New York State, he noted, over 50 percent of school districts contract out their transportation. On Long Island it is even higher, he said, where out of 5,000 buses 80 percent are contracted.
Much discussion on purchasing buses, equipment, and refurbishing the bus garage ensued and at one point Lou Craco took the floor and announced he was president of the school board over 30 years ago, and wanted to ask, as he put it, a crisp series of questions designed to frame the only real issue.
“Am I correct in my understanding that the data you have assembled and considered indicates that the capital of operating costs, the outsourced transportation system, exclusive of the fight in court, is cheaper than in-house transportation by around $1 million on an annual basis.”
“Am I correct in my understanding that if the vote is “Yes” and you re-acquire an in-house transportation capacity you will have it forever?”
“Am I correct in my understanding that if the community votes “No” that incremental costs of paying down the back pay and the comparable work costs last only as long as the protected employees last? One is perpetual and one is short term? Correct?”
“So whatever the incremental small dollars are along the way, the fact is one cost is forever while the other cost is something we buy out of? Correct?”
To all Lou Craco’s questions, Dr. Shine answered, “Yes.” Then Shine added that the “comment was made he did a much better job of explaining it than I did, and I agree.”
Because of the existing legal problems having embraced outsourced transportation in 2005 residents asked why they should believe the numbers now. They wondered whether the district’s consultants or legal firm had mentioned a potential problem with PERB. One asked, “Was the board notified five years ago that we’d be in violation of the Taylor Law?” Shine answered, “No.” Then why isn’t the old law firm on the hook, a resident asked. Shine responded that is an issue, but it’s not this issue, that they have been advised that malpractice suits are almost impossible to win. “If you want to take an adventure in spending money, try that one,” he commented.
At the last school board meeting residents wanted the cost of litigation to date, to which the administration said they would provide it at the next meeting. Shine advised the district paid $95,000 to Ingerman Smith. Additional legal fees for appeals etc. were, Shine said, $500,000.
The Manhasset Press contacted John H. Gross, principal, Ingerman Smith, the district’s prior law firm, who commented: “It has come to our attention that the Manhasset School District, our former client, has made a statement concerning the firm’s advice respecting school transportation litigation which we handled on behalf of the district. We are mindful of the general obligation of attorney client privilege. However, we can state that appropriate advice was provided by the firm to the school board in this matter, both verbally and in writing.”
To another question on the board’s credibility Dr. Shine advised that everything that goes on in the board room, unless it’s privileged information regarding client privilege, is available under FOIL.
When the question was asked Dec. 3 as to whether the prior law firm provided a written legal opinion Judy Reilly, MEPSA president, commented, “it shows in the board minutes that we discussed if it was a violation.”
At the request of the Manhasset Press Reilly provided the Manhasset Educational Support Personnel Association (MESPA) position regarding restoration of the bus transportation department.
“In 2004, the Manhasset Educational Support Personnel Association (MESPA)—the union representing 180 educational support personnel such as nurses, school supervisory aides and others in the Manhasset School District—told the district, and the public, that outsourcing the bus transportation department was unlawful and would end up costing the district more money.
“Members of the current district administration, however, assured the public that outsourcing the bus transportation department was both legal and would save the district money. After years of litigation, the courts ruled this summer that the district’s move was unlawful and that it owes the laid-off bus drivers back pay starting from July 2005 and continuing to date.
“Because of those actions in 2005, the district must now — retroactively from 2005, and from this point forward —pay twice for district bus driving work: once to the bus contractor and a second time to the unlawfully laid-off bus drivers. And, if the bus department is not reinstated at Manhasset, the district must continue to pay twice indefinitely — once to the contractor and a second time to the laid-off employees.
“At last week’s Board meeting, the District presented a side-by-side comparison of how much it would cost to bring the bus transportation department back, and how much it would cost if it continued to outsource. For operating costs for the 2010-11 school year, it claimed it would cost $5.97 million for a “yes” vote (meaning bring the department back) and $4.46 million for a “no” vote (meaning continue to outsource). However, a real comparison of the costs per year would include the additional $2.5 million it must pay the unlawfully laid-off Manhasset bus drivers and mechanics annually going forward. Thus a real comparison of costs would look like this: (See box on page 34.)
“Yes, outsourcing eliminates the cost of buying buses and fixing the bus garage; however, the $2.5 million liability the district must pay annually to the laid-off bus drivers and mechanics offsets these savings. In that case, why not simply bring back the bus transportation and pay the laid-off bus drivers and mechanics to drive and fix the buses?
“Finally, and what the district is not telling the public is this — if there are no comparable jobs, in essence apples to apples jobs, rather than apples to oranges jobs, the district will be required by the labor board to pay the laid-off employees anyway. Why not bring back the bus drivers and mechanics and pay them to do what they know how to do—drive and fix buses.
“MESPA spoke up in 2004 and tried to explain to the community and the Board that the outsourcing plan would end up costing more money. The district ignored us. The District refused to listen in 2004 — but let’s stop the madness now! For these reasons, MESPA is calling for a “Yes” vote on Dec. 15, 2009.”
Ed Vasta, president, Manhasset Education Association (MEA), was also asked for their organization’s statement:
“The Manhasset Education Association (MEA), the representative of the teachers employed by the Manhasset school district, is not involved in the outsourcing dispute. The drivers and mechanics are represented by the Manhasset Educational Support Personnel Association (MESPA). However, the resolution of the dispute affects all of us—parents, students, employees and taxpayers alike—and we have a common interest in seeing that district funds are expended in ways that benefit the educational mission of the district. It has now been over four years since the outsourcing, and it appears from the most recent decision of the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), issued in July 2009, that the district must pay the drivers and mechanics their salaries and benefits until they are reinstated to their old jobs, or to “comparable employment” with the district. It appears to the MEA that further litigation will simply delay the inevitable, and serve only to increase the cost to the district in back pay and attorneys fees. We believe that the best course for the district is to negotiate a gradual restoration of the in-house transportation operation with MESPA so that the drivers and mechanics can provide valuable service to the district, rather than for the district to pay them indefinitely for not working because of the lack of comparable jobs to which they may be reinstated. We believe that the District’s taxpayers, if fully informed, will approve the funds necessary to buy or lease buses to gradually restore the transportation operation and thereby end this unfortunate episode that was caused by the poor advice of the District’s former business manager and attorneys. We urge the board of education to begin such negotiations with MESPA immediately so that district funds may once again be used for education and support services, not litigation, damages and interest payments.”
At the meeting it was stated that some bus routes are subcontracted to other companies. If residents vote “No” on the proposition perhaps the district could hire MESPA drivers, with some restrictions, to run those routes.
The next school board meeting is Thursday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. in the secondary school board room.