About 40 school bus drivers and aides are holding their collective breath in fear of job losses as the Williamsport Area School Board votes tonight on whether to subcontract its busing operations to a private company headquartered in Punxsutawney.
Negotiations between the district and the support staff's union have been going on for more than year, according to school board president David Stone Jr., and tonight's board meeting will finally bring it to a vote.
Tonight will decide whether Student Transportation of America (STA) will be hired under a seven-year contract, a decision that, according to Stone, will bring cost-savings to taxpayers.
"Originally there were two bidders," Stone said. "This one (STA) emerged as preferred supplier about a year ago. They've been on hold as we continued negotiations with the union."
When asked about this potential a few months ago, school district officials declined comment.
"We are very distressed that the school board refuses to listen to the taxpayers on this important issue," said Chip Harter, union president. "It is clear that they do not care about keeping local jobs or helping our local economy. This is not an issue about saving money. From the beginning this has been about breaking the union and hurting our workers."
However, Stone maintains the district's initial and continued exploration into the issue is a matter of bringing cost savings to taxpayers - not about disrupting the union.
"We have done an analysis, and it is going to save a substantial amount of money, and that is why we are interested in it," Stone said. "From the union's standpoint, they analyzed it to show that it isn't. The problem is in the way they are doing the analysis. We feel part of our responsibilities is certainly to our employees, but also in saving costs, and that's what this is all about."
Union leaders insist evidence shows that hiring private companies costs school districts more money because the district has no control over their budget.
"We have shown them the evidence that in other districts these private companies low-ball their bids and then raise the costs later," Harter said. "(The district's) transportation department has consistently come under budget, so this is not about saving money. We have given them many concessions, yet they seemed determined to fire the bus drivers and aides."
When the union claimed in a news release that the board plans to "fire" the drivers, Stone took exception, saying the word "fire" is not accurate.
"The current employees will all be given an opportunity to interview with the subcontractors," he said. "The assumption is that the vast majority will be hired by the subcontractor."
While the assumption for absorption is there, Stone conceded the drivers are not guaranteed jobs.
"You can't force somebody else to hire somebody," Stone said.
Harter said that when private companies take over, they often slash wages and cut benefits and bring in their own employees to take the jobs, asking: "How can the school board think this is a good idea?"
The company's hiring is not figured into the 2009-10 school year budget, Stone said, which was based on current busing operations.
A tentative budget for the next school year was approved May 19 and is up for approval after a 30-day public viewing period.
Stone added the district would sell its fleet of buses to the company, for about $1 million. There are 50 buses in the fleet, according to business manager Jeffrey Richards.
The board meets at 6 p.m. in the District Service Center, 201 W. Third St.