Auburn schools hire private bus company

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Superintendent Katy Grondin, right, and Assistant Superintendent Michelle McClellan, center, talk with School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall prior to Wednesday's meeting.

AUBURN — The vote was unanimous. Northeast Charter will take over the task of driving kids to and from Auburn schools.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Doris Short, left, and her husband, Joe, of Minot, both school bus drivers in Auburn, listen intently to Scott Riccio, president and CEO of Northeast Charter, as he addresses the Auburn School Committee on Wednesday.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member William Horton

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member David Young

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member Laurie Tannenbaum

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member Lawrence Pelletier

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member Francois Bussiere

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Auburn School Committee member Tracey Levesque

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Auburn School Committee member Bonnie Hayes

"It's sad," said Debra Therriault, a bus driver for 13 years. "I feel like I could cry, only I'm too mad."

"I feel like I'm out of a job," said Bonnie Hersey, who drives bus No. 23 in East Auburn. "I think I need to clean all the personal stuff out of my bus."

After the School Committee voted, there was an air of resignation among the half-dozen drivers who hoped the vote would go the other way. They were angry and frustrated and worried about the future, sure.

But mostly it was resignation; they went into the meeting reasonably sure how it was going to turn out.

"It's all too political," said Joe Short, who's been driving for 18 years. "It's just another gimmick."

A gimmick that will save Auburn taxpayers $300,000 in the first year, according to the School Committee. And anyway, the people of Northeast Charter say all those bus drivers could keep their jobs.

Possibly. If they fill out applications, pass a physical and survive background checks, as well as checks for drug and alcohol use.

"It's just not fair," said Hersey, inside Auburn Hall and outside, after the vote.

The bus drivers, veterans of hauling kids to and from school, feel that if they want to keep their jobs, they basically have to start over. And even if they keep their jobs, just about all of them would lose their insurance.

There are no guarantees either way. Northeast Charter owner Scott Riccio, asked repeatedly whether the drivers would be welcomed into his company, declined to make promises. Sure, he'd welcome them, he said. As long as everything checks out.

He made no apologies for that stance.

"You're expecting me to provide the best possible drivers to transport the children," he told the committee.

Tasked with that, Riccio said he has rigid guidelines in place when it comes to hiring people to drive buses. It includes the physical, the background checks, an incentive program and a 90-day review period.

"It's just good business practice," he said. "And it's in the best interest of the children."

The meeting was at times feisty, although it never quite rose to the level of rowdy. While Riccio delivered his presentation, the bus drivers leaned forward in their chairs, shaking their heads, whispering back and forth. A few tried to respond to Riccio's assertions but were quickly silenced by committee Chairman Thomas Kendall until it was their turn to speak.

"We shouldn't have to be wondering whether we're going to have jobs," said Hersey, when her turn came around.

"We want to keep our jobs," Therriault said. "You can save money without outsourcing us."

The problem is, they can't. Kendall said the committee met with the drivers' union and explored other ways to save the taxpayers money. Those efforts fell short.

"That is the reason we're here tonight," Kendall said.

The matter was discussed for an hour before it was time to vote. Before that happened, committee member Bonnie Hayes repeatedly tried to get Riccio to commit to bringing back the drivers. He would not.

Committee member Laurie Tannenbaum argued that Riccio should not expect to promise anyone a job.

"He has the final decision," she said. "That's the way the business world works."

Maybe so, but for the drivers, the vote still stung. After it became final, they shuffled out of Auburn Hall, disappointed but not surprised. They milled around in the gloom of the parking garage talking about what came next. A few said they would apply for a position with Northeast Charter.

Probably.

Therriault, who used to drive for Riccio, said her opposition to the move wasn't personal. She was more upset with the School Committee than with him.

"They've told us so many stories," she said. "Back and forth so many times, we don't know what to believe anymore."

Some suggested there were hard feelings, though. And those feelings are likely to linger.

"He may be in for a surprise," Short said. "There will be a lot of drivers who won't go drive for him."

Northeast Charter and Tour Co. on Goddard Road in Lewiston currently runs 60 buses. The company has been around since 1999. The founder of the company, Riccio says he is prepared in case some or many of the drivers don't wish to come back.

"We'll have to go from another driver pool," he told the committee. "Which is an easy thing for us to do."

The company provides transportation for the Portland Sea Dogs and used to haul around hockey players with the Maineiacs. They also provide transportation services for casino trips, business outings and wedding parties.

And they drive children in other Maine towns. Since December, Northeast Charter has been providing transportation for some of Auburn's special needs students.

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Todd McCollough, safety director for Northeast Charter, right, and Vice President of Marketing and Sales Pat Ziska prepare documents they would present to the Auburn School Committee. Scott Riccio, second from left, president and CEO of Northeast Charter of Lewiston makes notes prior to addressing the committee about taking over school bus service in Auburn, in the Auburn City Council chambers prior to Wednesday night's meeting.

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Comments

Joe Flanders's picture

What the Auburn School

What the Auburn School Committee is not telling you is the Union offered to save the town $300,000.00 by switching all of the Auburn School employees, whether in this Union or not, to the unions Health insurance Plan. They are also not telling you that what they are doing is a violation of the Union contract that they agreed to and the Union is going to arbitrate this case and we believe we will win. What does that mean you may ask? A whole lot of money being paid to these bus drivers in damages as well as paying Northeast for their contract when an arbitrator orders the School to undo what they are doing. Makes a whole lot of sense when you get all the facts, doesn't it.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

This is why this country

This is why this country needs universal health care. Health care is a RIGHT, not a privilege only available to certain employees.

Keith Dutton's picture

Same thing here

I'm an Auburn native, but now live in central Illinois. The same thing is being done here . The bus drivers unionized two years ago, and now the school district is out-sourcing the service. The district and the drivers could not come to a contract agreement, and there will be substantial savings to the taxpayers. Auburn is not alone in these issues.

ERNEST LABBE's picture

This is how

This is how the city is going to save:

1) no contributions to social security.

2) no workers comp payments to the state.

3) no health insurance payments.

4) no bus maintenance

5) no pay for a supervisor or 2.

It is no secret that what ever government of any size does the private sector can usually do it for less and most often better.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Labor

No social security? No workman's comp? No health insurance? My advice to these bus drivers is to go on unemployment and find training for a job that is worth your time. You aren't going to do any worse and the odds are you will find something a lot better. Fortunately for you the economy is a lot better and there are jobs to be had.

...but anyway

What Ernest was saying was not that the workers would not be getting these benefite. He is saying the savings are coming from the facvt that the CITY won't be paying these expenses, the leasing company will. The only way, as far as I can see, the leasing company is able to submit a bid for $300k less is that they are going to severely cut the hours and pay for their drivers.

Whether they get those

Whether they get those benefits would depend on whether the contractor is hiring them as W2 employees or as 1099 "temp" contractors. If he has any sense, he will do the former.

There is a subtext in what the owner is saying and what the drivers are saying in the report that give the impression that he is known to several of the drivers (aside from the one who used to work for him) and they seem to think there is no reason to trust him). Otherwise, I can see no reason for their reluctance to apply with this guy. Sure, he won't make a guarantee, but unless there's some reason they were getting away with driving when they shouldn't (physical/background issues), it looks like a guaranteed job, And a guaranteed job is better than pissing and moaning about not being a driver and not being able to find another job.

Were the drivers in the union, or were they just part time workers? I did not get any sense of whether they are unionized or not. I suspect not because there would certainly have been statements from the union leaders as a response to the vote.

Bob White's picture

Claire I'm sure the company

Claire I'm sure the company will have to pay those benefits. I never thought the day would come when wanting to save money would be a bad thing.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Saving money

I sure hope you are correct about that. There doesn't seem to be anybody who knows for sure. I am all in favor of the government saving money but it should not be saving a nickel in order to spend a dollar further down the road. Putting people out of work in your community has repercussions. It should only be done as a last resort. It is better to postpone new hires or to postpone new programs or to let programs phase out. I think when government makes cuts it is important to look at who is hurt and whether or not the savings are worth it and whether you end up paying more in the end. Taking the attitude that all cuts are good is not smart and it is irresponsible. I noticed that Wal-Mart is advertising that it pays employee benefits and offers a path to promotion.. Could it be that they are seeing a tighter job market coming where they may have to compensate workers if they want quality employees? They have so far been very accurate at spotting trends.

Bob White's picture

Claire it is the law that

Claire it is the law that businesses have to pay certain taxes and fees. I will say I know a few people that work at Wal-Mart and they are paid well and have pretty good benefits grant it these aren't people that are waiting for people to take care of them they are hard working and they have ambition. These people started out at the bottom and have worked there way up. If you go to work at any place and there thought is I'm only going to do just barely enough to get by well then your not going to get far a head in life.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

I don't know what your Wal

I don't know what your Wal Mart friends are telling you, but as of 6 months ago, their employees were the largest group of working poor in this country, on welfare and on state health care despite having a job.

Kelsie Chamberlain's picture

Unions / Benifits

I agree with some of what is said. I feel that the biggest fail is that of the Unions/Cities for letting it get to this point. The city should have never agreed to pay health insurance for part time employees, nor should the union have pushed for it.The city and and state government really need to take a new look at that simple fact the next time union negotiations come up. The city alone could save roughly $2-$3 million a year if employees paid a fair share of their health insurance.

How are they going to save us

How are they going to save us 300,000 a year? Show me. What are the savings the 2nd, 3rd, years.

Hiring a private Bus contractor

I would suggest that if you question the facts involved in the decsion, that you ask the Auburn School Department directly, the proposal should be a matter of public record, if you have any difficulty obtainining the information,please let me know, and I will gladly assist you in obtaining it

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Welcome to the real (Cruel) world

Welcome to the cold cruel world of economics. Like it or not, the bus drivers have just gotten a taste of what happens when something needs doing. No matter what the job, what the task, big or small, there is always someone or something out there that will do it for less.
Sure this new company will hire you on, it's in their best interest. They don't know the routs, and they don't know the schedules. They will have a ready, trained work crew just chomping at the bit to go. They will however force you to suffer a little for the privilege
There are two known facts in this equation. One is you most likely won't make as much money after they graciously give you your own job back, and two, the company is in this to make a profit. They will make a profit first and foremost. This means little if any benefits, and no union, thats a given.
I got caught up in this merry-go-round back in the eighties with the trucking industry. They tried several different names for it, and finally settled on "Dedicated Logistics".
What will follow is a roller-coaster ride. Once the City figures out that bidding out the services, saves tons of money and not to mention cuts down on expensive overhead, it becomes a regular procedure for them, and a nightmare for the drivers. Every few years or so, the contract is put up for bid, the lowest bidder gets the contract for another three years or so. The problem with this scenario, is that every new bidder is lower than the last. How ever, the low bidder usually agrees to hire the existing drivers and everyone's happy. Well accept the drivers. Every time the contract changes hands the pay goes down. The first couple of times aren't so bad, but after a few times it starts to hurt. It will amaze everyone the things told to the drivers by the new management, to trick you into believing they are actually working for you.
Just keep one thing in mind, they say it would be easy for them to supply the work force for the job if needed. This is July, if they plan to start in September,what would happen if no current drivers agreed to come aboard. How would they start from scratch and form all the different routs, the scheduling. Think about how much a driver has to be trained just to learn one bus rout. Imagine having to train an entire fleet of drivers with no experienced instructors. Don't forget, the routs themselves would need to be redrawn. A lot of time, management isn't even aware of a lot of intricacies of driving a particular rout. It takes time to learn the little tricks that make it work. Imagine having to do all that from scratch, in just two months.
Message to the current drivers: You are a lot more valuable to a new company, than they will ever admit.........................

Bob White's picture

Frank I will agree with some

Frank I will agree with some of the things you point out but I think your off a bit. Your right that their is no unions probably a good thing because they are probably one of the reason this came to this. Unions back in the day were great for promoting safety training and wages/benefits but today is a different day in the work force and the unions. The work force is more competitive which means if employers want good workers then they have to step up. Unions of today a lot of times all they think of is the employee and they don't think that maybe the company has to make money as well as the employee.
I'm sure that their maybe someone in the school department that has the school bus routes and maybe if this is a company that's trying to make money maybe they would look at the routes and make them more efficient. You are right the drivers are the biggest asset that the company has and they will need leaders to help them with the transition. There might be some opportunity for people to step up and show there leadership and advance maybe not today but in the future.
One question and maybe its been answered already does the company taking over offer benefits to there other employees?

FRANK EARLEY's picture

As for benefits, I wouldn't count on it................

I don't know what the contract situation is or how long it will last. in my experience, three years has been the benchmark. I have experienced this trend in many trucking companies from Ryder and Lily, being leased to companies like General Motors, and Chrysler Corp. I have also, in my younger years, driven school buses for two large companies in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.If this does in fact evolve into a DDS type contract service, the three year contract time limit, diminishes the ability to offer benefits. It is one of the huge savings a business finds when putting a job out to bid. They also, in most cases, have no vehicle maintenance and insurance or registration obligation. All that is included in the cost of the contract.
The one certainty in all of this is, this bus company is able ,at least on paper, to do this job for less than the City of Auburn can. That means the pay scale has to be lower. I'm also assuming that this company is expecting a lot of support from current employees. The current drivers need to be careful. Don't be conned into providing to much information. They may very well find that they are helping themselves right out of a job. I had one company from Pennsylvania, offer great working conditions and benefits, not to mention a brand new fleet of trucks and trailers. They promised us the world, and even offered to allow "US DRIVERS" to help train new drivers to cut down on our work load. At the time we had thirty five drivers running thirty runs six nights per week. The average run time was twelve to fifteen hours per night. We worked five nights per week with our own spare drivers covering the extra runs. We were delivering new car parts to new car dealerships all over New England. Myself and another driver covered thirty seven dealerships in Maine and New Hampshire.
Turns out this new contract holder of our job, thought we would fall for training new drivers so they could pay them half what we were making. Long story short, we all walked out at one time. This company lost the contract due to their inability to perform the necessary work. These "new drivers" they hired to do the job, wrecked half the companies brand new fleet of trucks in eight months. They got what they paid for.
Over the years, I have seen companies succeed with this type of management, but it takes intelligent operational skills. They need to take full advantage of the skilled workers available to them and treat them as more than just a replaceable asset. Once the unions got eliminated over the years. The only success stories I've seen, are places that respect and treat their employee's as an integral part of the overall machine. It's the companies that can keep winning these contacts over and over again who win in the long run. In order to accomplish that, you need a positive work environment, where everyone is just as important as the next guy on the team. It's also the companies that win the contracts every year that are able to maintain a higher pay scale. If everyone works together toward one goal, it can work.

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