Bus Company First Student Gets $7M For Not Driving Kids | Connecticut Public Radio
WNPR

Bus Company First Student Gets $7M For Not Driving Kids

Jun 30, 2020

New Haven will pay its school bus contractor $1.5 million less than normal for time the buses were idle during the pandemic — but more than they should, according to some Board of Education members.

In a 5-2 vote, the Board of Ed Monday decided to approve the numbers its lawyers and financial officers had settled on with contractor First Student to cover costs for when schools were closed and buses weren’t running during the pandemic.

Board members Darnell Goldson and Tamiko Jackson-McArthur cast the dissenting votes.

“Why would we vote to give First Student $7.3 million when they haven’t provided any services for us?” Goldson asked.

A late March executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont required school boards to continue to pay transportation providers to ensure buses and bus drivers would be ready to start driving students again if schools reopened. The order told districts and contractors to renegotiate their contracts to reflect the real costs the contractor was incurring.

The team that worked on the negotiation settled on savings in overtime and field trip pay for drivers, administrative overhead and more.

Goldson asked why the board is paying for bus driver and other employee salaries when First Student could have applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program for businesses hit by the COVID-19 economic closures.

District Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto responded that he could not force First Student to apply for the PPP grant.

Jackson-McArthur and Larry Conaway said that $7.3 million sounded still too high, compared to settlements other districts had gotten.

Conaway eventually voted with the majority of the board members, who argued that they should trust that their staff members got the best deal they could.

Board member Matthew Wilcox said that he had seen documents as part of his work on the board’s Finance and Operations Committee that backed up both staff and First Student claims. He also pointed out that the negotiating team kept the board up to date in executive sessions over the past few months.

“I’m supremely confident that if the negotiating team thought they could get another $50,000, they would have,” Wilcox said.

Bus Drivers In The Middle

When New Haven schools closed in March, First Student told bus drivers to apply for unemployment.

Pay resumed in April after the governor’s order. The board and its representatives were clear that First Student should give New Haven drivers back pay for the missed paychecks and they have seen payrolls to indicate First Student fulfilled this promise. However, not every individual driver has seen that back pay yet.

A driver and First Student employee who asked to remain anonymous showed the Independent pay stubs of her missed paychecks and the fact that she has not received any pay bumps since those missing weeks.

She has been a bus driver for high schools like Wilbur Cross and James Hillhouse and K-8 schools like East Rock and Bishop Woods.

She is also an NHPS parent, like many of her fellow drivers, she said. When schools closed, she had to learn Google Classroom and become a teacher for her child, who is on the autism spectrum.

She has another part-time job but relies on her First Student paycheck to pay her bills. When First Student restarted her pay in April, it was at a flat 30-hour rate. Because she normally works 45 or more hours a week, her take-home pay was suddenly 30 to 50 percent lower than she was used to.

The entire experience has her thinking about going back to nursing, a job she left to have more flexible hours when she had kids.

“It made me want to knuckle down with starting to brush up my resume and start getting new skills,” she said.

In addition, she is worried about the state’s plan for all schools to reopen in the fall. She is worried about her exposure to COVID-19 on a full bus and about her child’s safety at school.

“Everything that’s going on in New Haven, we’re feeling it even more,” she said. “Not only are we unemployed, we’re also worried about our kids.”