WL Schools close after bus drivers call in sick on heels of privatizing transportation

By: Sherri Kolade | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published May 8, 2013

The Walled Lake Consolidated School District is closed today after a large number of bus drivers were absent, according to the district’s website and Facebook page, which posted this message:

“Due to a number of bus driver absences, all of the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools are closed today.”

The absent bus drivers reportedly called in sick one day after Dean Transportation  — which won a bid that will privatize the district’s transportation services — introduced itself to bus drivers. The move to privatize will save the district more than $4.2 million over the next three years.

Board of Education members voted 7-0 to privatize their transportation services with the Michigan-based company during a board meeting May 2.

The privatization with the family owned company will save the district about $1.428 million annually, officials said.

Ann Ridge, district bus driver and Walled Lake Consolidated School District Transportation Association union president, who called in sick today, said that if her members also called in sick, then they truly were.

“I have no idea how many called,” she said. “I have not been to work, and I have not talked to my members. Nothing was planned in any way. (The district) can take it how they want to take it, but they know I’ve been sick. I have a doctor’s appointment. I have never been one to abuse my sick days.”

The Michigan Education Association released a statement on the bus driver absences:

“Neither the Michigan Education Association nor the Walled Lake Transportation Association knew about any actions being taken by the bus drivers this morning,” the statement reads. “We learned about the absences along with the rest of the community.

“The recent decision to fire all the drivers and replace them with a private company has stirred strong emotions among both the employees and the community.  To replace the first school-related faces students see in the morning with a for-profit company is a disservice to those students and the years of dedication by the drivers.”

The union’s contract was set to expire June 30; Dean Transportation will take the helm July 1.

According to the district’s website, www.wlcsd.org, students and staff involved in Advanced Placement testing are required to report to their respective testing sites today; the tests cannot be made up.

Prime Time Care, a latchkey program, will also be offered for the registered students and families, according to the website.

According to Ridge, the numbers do not add up for the district’s projected savings.

“We knew we were doing it cheaper than what they (Dean Transportation) were doing it,” Ridge said. “The district is not going to save $4.2 million that they are claiming. I want the public to know the truth about everything. I think they mislead the public. We put our numbers on the board the other night. We love our kids, enough to fight for them. Enough to lay down and die for them.

“I’m not afraid of this district, their attorneys, this administration. What do I have to lose? I’ve worked. I’ve got coming what I’ve got coming. The savings is not there.”

Ridge, a 22-year district employee, relayed those thoughts and more during the heated school board meeting, where she was escorted out of the meeting after telling board members her viewpoint and speaking past the time limit.

The meeting drew a number of protestors, including many from the district’s Walled Lake Consolidated Schools Transportation Association union, who held up signs such as “Cheaper to keep us” and “Our schools are not for sale.”

The move to privatize the transportation services was of necessity, district officials say, because state law forces them to have a balanced budget by June 30.

Ridge said she is not against the district having a balanced budget, but after cuts in benefits three years ago, the union could not do away with any more.

“Three years ago we gave them $5 million in cuts, a 10 percent pay cut, 20 percent medical premiums, 100 percent increases, six vacation days and holidays and 100 percent of retirement increases,” she said. “We saved the district $5 million dollars.”

In a May 2 letter, Superintendent Kenneth Gutman addressed district parents and staff about the decision to privatize.

“We are currently working to finalize decisions regarding our 2013-2014 budget, with expected reductions to be an estimated $10 million,” Gutman said in the letter.

The letter also cited that the district had been in negotiations with the transportation association since August 2012, and has conducted 13 sessions.

“Although good faith bargaining with the Walled Lake Transportation Association did not yield an agreement, every facet of the transportation budget was thoroughly researched, and Walled Lake Schools’ administration recommended Dean Transportation to provide transportation services to Walled Lake Schools beginning with the 2013-2014 school year,” Gutman stated in the letter. “We are doing everything we can to make decisions that keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible, balance the budget and continue to offer a quality educational experience for our students and families.

“Dean Transportation has an excellent safety record, will offer jobs to our drivers, and will compensate our drivers at a competitive rate.”

According to a Q&A fact sheet on www.wlcsd.org, Dean Transportation transports students in more than 100 districts, including Grand Rapids Public Schools, and the Kent, Ingham, Traverse and Ottawa intermediate school districts. Dean Transportation was selected via a proposal process, and after being interviewed, among other steps, they were chosen, Director of Operations Bill Chatfield said.

Chatfield, along with Supervisor of Transportation Jill Segal, will oversee the contract with Dean Transportation, among other tasks.

“That will involve making sure the transition of transportation services to Dean Transportation goes smoothly … and is up and running July 1,” Chatfield said.

Chatfield said the most important step is to ensure that drivers are hired and employed for the summer and regular school year.

“They have a lot of drivers that have to be hired between now and then,” he said. “We need as many as we can get by July 1.”

Current bus drivers earn, on average, about $16 per hour in a five-tier pay scale; new hires earn, on average, about $14 in a five-tier pay scale, according to the district’s budget and salary reporting.

Chatfield was unable to confirm how much, on average, current and new Dean Transportation bus drivers would make in the district.

“(The numbers) are not something we are privy to,” Chatfield said. “The wage scale is something similar (to the current one).”

Ridge said about 25 of the district’s bus drivers would be eligible to retire, if they choose to.

The fact sheet said Walled Lake transportation employees in good standing will be considered for employment with Dean Transportation.

Chattfield said drivers interested in applying for a job with Dean Transportation could.

Dean Transportation officials were scheduled to visit the district during informational meetings the week of May 5.

According to the fact sheet, new benefits for privatizing transportation services include the district receiving at least $50,000 for the existing inventory of bus parts; the district will no longer be responsible for workers’ compensation, and the district will no longer have legacy costs.

The district will still have ownership of the buses, including future bus purchases.

Ridge said she doesn’t plan to apply for a job with Dean Transportation.

“I think we are looking into some legal challenges,” she said, claiming that Dean Transportation was given a second bid and the second round of numbers were lower than before.

According to the district’s bidding process on its website, late proposals or proposal revisions were not accepted or considered.

Julie Norris, 17-year bus driver and union crisis chairperson, said she felt “totally disrespected” by the decision to privatize.

“I am so angry, it is hard to think,” Norris said. “We are a great group of people and we were just sold down the river. I don’t understand how they (board members) can (vote for the privatization) when their numbers were incorrect. The decision was done before they even came to us with idea of privatization. They already had it in the works.”

Board of Education President Peggy Casagrande said she felt that the board heard all sides fairly.

"I do believe that we did," Casagrande said. "We received information in the mail, at our board meetings, from parents, the community, transportation, commentary. ... We did respond to (the union). I do believe we received information from all sides."

Chatfield said the district is “very confident” in the ability of Dean Transportation to provide top-notch services to the district.

“I am very comfortable in recommending them.”

For more information and updates about school closings, go to www.wlcsd.org.

Board of Education members did not respond to emails by press time.