BCPSS reacts to strike threat by drivers, weighs in on new company's record

Baltimore - ABC2 News Investigators were the first to tell you about a group of local school bus contractors threatening to strike over a deal given to an out-of-state company.  Now they're digging in to find out more about who scored a contract with Baltimore City Public Schools.

When Baltimore City students let out for the summer, they'll be saying goodbye to some of the bus drivers who've driven them for years.  A group of local bus companies say they'll have to close after losing longtime contracts with the district.  They lost bids in the latest negotiation, with an Ohio company called First Student picking up 50 routes they've covered.  The company pulled out of a contract it won in the last round of negotiations with the system, using a 90-day clause and providing eight months' notice according to school officials.

The drivers met with ABC2 on Friday.  Norma Weldon with M.R. Hopkins Transportation told us they're considering a strike because they feel they have no choice, saying, "We don't want that because we care about the children of Baltimore."

It's the driver's care that they say has made them loyal to the district for decades, but Baltimore Schools COO Keith Scroggins says longtime service can't be a deciding factor when they make business decisions.  He says, "It's about fairness for everyone who applies for the contract.  If we throw in a loyalty quotient it unfairly gives them an advantage."

But in the end, the advantage went to other vendors, including First Student, which won a future deal.  The company's recent past has been problematic though.  Ohio state records show the company has been on probation twice in the last six years with the Ohio Department of Public Safety.  A release indicates the company had to pay a $50,000 fine after an audit found they didn't have background checks on file.

Federal records also show the company is in line for potential additional monitoring as a result of inspections in the last two years.  Safety inspection data provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration indicates the feds found First Student had school bus drivers who weren't physically qualified or didn't have valid licenses.  Scroggins admits BCPSS was not aware of that, stating, "Their safety record is considered to be much better than the national average, probably twice the national average, so this is news to us."

But the local contractors who lost out are hoping for good news as they appeal the bids and consider walking out.  Scroggins says the threat of a strike won't sway their decision.  He tells ABC2, "It's an illegal act which is not going to make us change our position one way or another."

Scroggins says he has faith in Frist Student and says the company and its drivers will be monitored like every other vendor that does business with the district.  First Student responded to multiple requests for comment Monday afternoon, sending this statement:

"First Student takes the safety and security of the six million students it transports daily very seriously. We are proud of our safety record and the required hours of training our drivers go through prior to ever operating one of our school buses and throughout their tenure with the company.

Currently, the FMCSA exempts home to school and school to home student transportation services, which is the vast majority of First Student operations and not factored into the Driver Fitness category. The driver fitness score has been based upon a small number of covered trips such as charter or extra-curricular services. Out of 1,518 inspections, First Student was cited 25 times, with a majority of those violations pertaining to drivers not having their medical card in their immediate possession while operating a bus on either a charter or extra-curricular trips, despite having passed their DOT physical.

In 2007, the Ohio Department of Public Safety found First Student's background check process to be incomplete in the city of Columbus, OH. First Student was placed on a two-year probation as a result. The 2007 settlement agreement expired November 14, 2009.

Following this settlement, we strengthened our internal auditing processes significantly and revised our monthly and annual safety and compliance audit process to provide additional safeguards.

We also took the following actions:

  • Processed new background checks on all employees serving Columbus Public Schools (CPS).
  • Suspended service to CPS for one day to allow the background checks to be processed and verified.
  • Audited all other First Student locations in Ohio – all were found to be in compliance.

As a result of the CPS internal investigations, we:

  • Terminated the location manager
  • Disciplined local staff responsible for not following proper procedures
  • Revised its monthly and annual safety and compliance audit process
  • Revised background check procedures to include additional safeguards and balances.

    In the fall of 2009, First Student received a letter from the Ohio Department of Public Safety concerning an audit of driver records. We were very disappointed to learn of six paperwork issues, specifically related to training records, in our Miami Valley Location (Dayton). This was purely a filing error.

    First Student employs 806 drivers throughout Ohio, but even one administrative issue is too many. We have extensively audited all of our files and are confident that this was an anomaly. In addition, we have contracted with a third-party auditor to conduct regular audits of all First Student files.

    The probationary period extends through September 2010."

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