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District looking to outsource all transportation services

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

As part of its effort to slash costs and dramatically reduce its central office, the District is considering outsourcing its entire transportation department for the upcoming school year.

"[The] School District is evaluating the option to further privatize its yellow school bus transportation," according to a Request for Proposals issued this month. Responses are due May 29.

"The successful Proposer shall assume all management responsibility for the School District’s Transportation Division," says the "Statement of Work" on page three of the document.

The move could lead to changes in who provides bus service to almost 36,000 children, including disabled students. The District now operates 417 District bus routes, all of which would be turned over to private management. Over 800 routes are already contracted to outside vendors.

Besides bus service and management, the RFP would affect cab service for students, athletic and special events transportation, and extended school year transportation. It could also mean changes in who administers disbursement of SEPTA student TransPasses and the District’s internal PONY Express mail system.

Gabe Morgan, the Pennsylvania director of District 1201 of SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents bus drivers and other blue-collar school workers, said that his union is still in talks with the District about reducing costs for transportation and other services without wholesale outsourcing.

"We have offered concessions that amount to thousands per member to try to keep the schools running," he said.

District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has said that he needs to save $50 million in costs for school maintenance and transportation, and the District has issued layoff notices to all of 32BJ’s members to take effect by the end of this calendar year.

"In Pennsylvania, folks like bus drivers and Tom Knudsen are being put in no-win situations because the state government is de-funding public education and forcing everyone at the local level to deal with the problem," said Morgan, who was one of 14 people arrested at a large rally held by the union Wednesday to protest layoffs and privatization of their positions.

"It’s a terrible thing to take a hardworking bus driver or school custodian and say to them, ‘We are going to toss you out or turn your job into a minimum-wage job with no benefits or end your pension even if you’ve been contributing to it,’" said Morgan.

The District has issued a statement regarding 32BJ that the two sides are engaged "in good faith efforts to come to an agreement on changes that will result in savings necessary to continue to support educational programs in schools."

Putting out an RFP does not mean that outsourcing is a foregone conclusion, but it is another step in preparing for the possibility.

"Proposers must manage all of these functions of the current School District transportation division, as well as any functions that may develop or adapt as a result of potential further privatization of operations and investment in automated routing software," according to the RFP.

As part of the effort, the District wants to modernize its transportation services by investing in automated routing software. New bus contractors could be required to retrofit their fleets with GPS devices.

Additional reporting by Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.