More Cincinnati students may be walking to school this fall. The Cincinnati Board of Education is considering whether to reduce busing in order to save a million-and-a-half dollars. The financially strapped district may force about 2800 kids who now ride the bus to hoof it by pushing out the boundaries for mandatory bus service.
But whatever the boundaries, there are questions about what CPS and it's 35,000 students are getting for the money, your money, from the school bus contractor. Local 12 reporter Jeff Hirsh began investigating this back at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. Here's what he found.
At the Cunningham house, getting ready for school is pretty much like at everybody else's house. Mom Candace walks 12 year old Mikala and 10 year old Malik to the bus stop, where everyone waits and hopes, hopes bus route number 335 will show up on time. "That's the bus. This bus is always late".
Which for the bus company, First Student is apparently nothing new. First Student has the contract for Cincinnati Public Schools. But there's a stack of nearly 800 complaints and follow-ups. Candace Cunningham's says this is the 7th or 8th time bus has not shown up. First Student, she says, is a disaster. "You feel like you're getting the run around? Yes, I do".
So do a lot of others. Parents saying things like the bus does not come at least two days a week. "I am tired of my child getting to school late, missing curriculum, and I am in the process of losing my job due to the tardiness of the bus".
And it's not just parents who are complaining about First Student. There are teachers and principals who are also fed up. "Transportation is key to running our school. We do need quality bus service for all of our kids."
Bill Shula is principal of St. Francis Desales Elementary School, an inner city Catholic School where most kids are not Catholic. They come here from all over for the education. Shula is one of the principals who complained about late buses and kids not being picked up. "The question we had were they able to handle it. Obviously they weren't able to handle it at the beginning of the year."
First Student was supposed to make things better and cheaper. In 2008-09, Cincinnati Public Schools divided its bus routes among three different contractors: First Student, Petermann, and Riggs. But beginning in 2009-10, that all changed. Based on promises of increased efficency and 8 million dollars in savings, the school board, on a 4-3 vote, gave First Student an exclusive, 5-year, 91-million dollar contract.
Cincinnati Public Schools has fined first student more than $28,000, for hundreds of service problems, late buses, missing stops, fines allowed in the contract. Things did improve as the school year went on, but critics say there were still serious shortcomings: "If there's an accident, a problem, the driver has to have the children evacuate the bus, safely have the kids get off the bus."
Under state law, within the first two weeks of school, a bus safety instruction seminar is required for all students kindergarten through grade three. First Student did not get around to that until March, which kind of defeats the purpose when the school year is almost over. And three actual evacuation drills are also required on board the bus for all kids during the year, those did not even start until Mid-May.
Shula also says previous bus companies would contact the school at the end of each quarter, asking for feedback on how to improve service: "We have not gotten anything to respond back to the bus company as a follow up on their part."
But if a lot of parents and school principals say First Student's service is second rate, there's another issue with the bus contractor as well, making a big deal about delivering on something, and not doing so. Specificially, new buses.First Student told CPS it would spend millions of dollars to buy 256 brand- new buses the first year of the contract, giving the city an average fleet age of 2.6 years. First Student said it would spend 17.4 million dollars on those buses, and added in short, the buses are already being built. CPS bought the argument.
But there's a problem. First Student has not provided 256 new buses to Cincinnati Public Schools, not even close. Late last year, we asked First Student to document the age of each bus it uses in Cincinnati. First Student spokesperson Glenda Lamont said no... too much paperwork to check. Go to the state, she said. So we did.
Documents from the state of Ohio show First Student only has about 130 new buses in Cincinnati. Why does this matter? Well, if First Student is not buying those new, fuel efficient buses, it's First Student which is saving millions of dollars, without passing those savings along to the Cincinnati school system and Cincinnati taxpayers. First Student got to buy older, cheaper buses, but the amount CPS is paying them for the contract did not go down.
Terry Elfers is chief operating officer for Cincinnati Public Schools. Elfers says First Student asked to postpone buying all 256 new buses "after" the school board voted for First Student. Elfers says he let First Student buy 100 older buses from a losing bidder, Riggs, with the understanding that First Student would buy more new buses down the road. "Can you amend the contract without going back to the board for a vote? Oh absolutely".
The school board was never asked if it was okay for First Student to back out of 256 new buses, and buy 100 used ones. In fact, the board was never even informed it had happened until months after the used buses were bought and were on the streets. "I think the board became aware in late winter that the purchase had already been made". Eve Bolton is Vice President of the school board, one of three board members who voted against the exclusive contract for First Student, questioning First Student's ability to do the job well while saving Cincinnati taxpayers money. "Give First Student a grade. On financial savings I would say D, on service, D".
Bolton is not pleased that First Student has 100 fewer new buses than the company's sales pitch promised. "Indeed some of the selling points about keeping fuel costs in check is that we would be having a large portion of the fleet being new and more fuel efficient".
The administration says it let First Student off the 256 new bus hook in reaction to school board comments, concerns that local bus companies not getting the contract would be hit hard, and their drivers would be out of a job: "The request for First Student to do what it could to minimize the impact on Petermann and Riggs came from the board before the vote and was part of the discussion on the vote".
Bolton says the board was concerned about local companies, and particularly about drivers losing jobs, but for the administration to see that as a green light to let First Student buy 100 old buses from a losing bidder is, well: "It certainly is a stretch to say buying Riggs buses would alleviate our concern about local entities".
Indeed, if you watch the video or listen to the audio of the school board meetings where votes were taken on the bus contract, there is no suggestion by any board member that First Student get out of buying 256 new buses and buy 100 used ones, none whatsoever.
First Student would not put anyone on camera about this. Spokesperson Maureen Richmond did say by phone that CPS gave them permission to buy Riggs, and "we were a good corporate citizen" by buying a losing bidder's buses. But that good corporate citizen would not say how much it saved by buying the 100 used buses.
So we did some checking with industry sources, and here's a reasonable ballpark estimate. A new school bus costs around $75,000. Price of a used bus depends on age and condition, we'll estimate $25,000 apiece. Here's the math. 100 new buses at $75,000 each, 7 and a half million dollars. 100 used buses, two and a half million dollars.
"By buying older buses First Student saved a lot of money. Are they passing those savings along to the board? We have not noticed it in the First Student contract nor in the line item for transportation which is actually going up, but yes, if they saved a lot of money it should be used to improve the service or reduce the cost to taxpayers the Cincinnati School District".
First Student says the service it's providing is good, they say buses are more than 99 per cent on time. And Terry Elfers says the hundreds of complaints are just a fraction of the thousands of students transported. "What grade would you give First Student on their service? B-plus, A-minus".
First Student also points out, and they are correct, that the contract requires no buses over 12 years old, and an average fleet age of 8 years, they do meet both of those conditions. But 256 new buses was a key part of First Student's sales pitch. What if that pitch included old, used buses and millions of dollars less in savings instead? Would First Student have won the contract then? Remember, the vote for First Student was only 4-3: "Would First Student have gotten the bid if they had not said we'll buy 256 new buses? There's no way to know".
School board member Bolton says the First Student contract should be reviewed, with an eye towards making changes: "It may be the administration's budget but it's the people's money and the board is ready and willing to be protective of the people's money".
Meantime Candace Cunningham is hoping her kids' bus will show up on time, however old that bus may be. "I wake up every morning wondering gee I don't know what it is gong to be like today".
First Student is also currently on probation with the state of Ohio. The company was fined$50,000 for inadequate record keeping in the Dayton area. The Ohio Department of Public Safety says First Student could lose the right to transport kids in Ohio if it violates the probation, which includes monthly random audits by an independent third party.