BALTIMORE - A group of nine local school bus contractors is threatening to strike in Baltimore city over a contract given to an out-of-state company. ABC2 News Investigators broke the story Friday afternoon on Twitter, letting you know thousands of kids could be without a ride to school, all over an agreement they say will put hundreds of local drivers out of work.
The Young family has been driving kids to school in Baltimore for more than 30 years. In June, the job they've loved will come to an end. Brent Young, owner of Y & L Transportation, says, "They're just treating us like it meant nothing, absolutely nothing."
Young's company is one of nine local school bus contractors threatening to strike in Baltimore city. They've all done business with the city school system for years, but they won't be anymore. Last month, they were notified they lost bids to provide service to an out-of-state vendor, First Student.
Norma Weldon, who represents M.R. Hopkins Transportation Services, says it's been a tough decision to digest, "We take this very personal. We are very upset with the way all of this has come down the wire."
You may want to call it sour grapes, but these drivers say while they've been loyal to the district for decades, through late payments, changes in school administration and more. The say the company that won their business, has not. First Student, an international company based with a U.S. office here in Ohio, won the 50 routes the group of contractors collectively would have supplied.
In a letter sent to Baltimore City Delegate Shawn Tarrant, schools CEO Andrea Alonso says the system received 19 proposals that were acceptable for award. After soliciting a "best and final offer", Alonso indicates, "City Schools routes were awarded to the lowest cost proposal first, and then to the next lowest cost proposal and so on until all routes were allocated."
The letter indicates the selected companies will save the district close to $900,000 each year or more than $4 million over the life of the contract. The local contractors say they were underbid by a company with immense resources, but they also believe there's more to the story, including a prior deal with First Student they think should have been part of the decision making process. April Young with Y & L Transportation says, "First Student actually in the past pulled out of a contract with Baltimore City."
And records show during the last round of school bus contract negotiations, First Student backed out of a deal with BCPSS after winning a bid. In the letter to Tarrant, Alonso says the company had a 90-day clause within its contract with the district and that "First Student met the terms of the termination clause."
But these bus company owners say they're the ones who had the school system's back when there was no one to drive thousands of students when that deal fell through. Craig Joyner with Baltimore Travel Lines says, "When First Student walked out on them, we were there to bail them out of that situation." Records show some of these companies even purchased buses left behind in the First Student deal and they say they're still paying the debt.
But their loyalty to the children they carry, and care about, appears to have meant little during the bid process. Now it could mean a lot to these family-owned businesses, with as many as 250 people standing to lose their jobs at the end of the school year. The owners say they've tried everything, but now their drivers may have to walk off the job if they can't get the district to reconsider. Weldon says, "As contractors if you allowed them to bail out and allowed them to come back, we're going to bail out and then we'll just come back in 2018."
Delegate Tarrant supports the local bus contractors in their efforts to win the district's contracts. In this session, he submitted a bill in the state house asking that in- state companies get an advantage in bidding for jobs in Baltimore City. Other local contractors who actually won awards from the district have come out in support of the group as well.
The Maryland School Bus Contractors Association says it does not support a strike in any way, shape or form. But the organization is behind the contractors in principle, sending ABC2 the following statement: "The Maryland School Bus Contractors Association strongly supports the locally-owned school bus owner/operator and values greatly their contribution and commitment to their respective local communities. These hardworking men and women not only frequently service the school bus routes they rode as children, they are often second and third generation contractors, continuing the legacy of their parents and grandparents. They employ fellow local residents, support local charitable causes and pay local taxes. It is MSBCA's belief that local school systems should seek to protect these small business owners as best they can. All too often we see instances that bring to mind the story of
David and Goliath – the small local company trying desperately to protect its business holdings in the face of competition from the huge national conglomerate, the latter of which can afford to offer exceedingly low prices given its extensive reach. Further, and more specific to the case at hand, MSBCA believes the Baltimore City Public School System should embrace procurement policies consistent with the important minority contracting goals established by State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore."
Baltimore City Schools spokeswoman Edie House responded to our request for comment Friday afternoon, saying, "All procurement protocols were followed in the awarding of this contract."