BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — A short experiment with outsourcing student transportation services through First Student has been a bumpy ride, but with any luck, the rehiring of Niskayuna’s school bus drivers is a sign of a smoother road ahead.
In June 2012, budget pressures caused negotiations with the Niskayuna School District Employees’ Association to fail. The district and the union couldn’t agree on a rate of pay, so the district opted to outsource its transportation contract to help stay under the state-imposed property tax cap.
Transportation company First Student won the contract and hired many of Niskayuna’s bus drivers, plus others. But overall, the experiment has been less than successful. Understaffing has caused delays and instability, and bus drivers have been displeased with their salary and workplace experiences at First Student.
“Most districts around the area are having difficulty finding drivers,” interim Superintendent John Yagielski said. “They actually struggled to keep all the routes covered.”
Sometimes, other transportation employees like dispatchers and mechanics would even have to substitute in a pinch. The result was a chaotic environment that often disrupted students’ school days.
In early 2015, First Student notified the district that in order to provide better service, it would need more money. But rather than repeat the bidding process for transportation services, as would have been required by law, the district decided it would be smarter and simpler to bring busing back in house and hire back the drivers it had laid off in 2012.
In fact, that change was already going to happen, just not as quickly: The district had intended to hire drivers back gradually, while still relying on First Student for assistance. Instead, during the 2015-16 school year (and even earlier, during summer enrichment classes) drivers on staff with the district will once again shuttle students to and from school.
“We’re in the process right now of going through a formal recall,” Yagielski said.
Civil service law requires the drivers be recalled in order of seniority through a formal letter. Yagielski said so far, all but four drivers, who had either retired or found other jobs, plan to return to the district.
Diane Degener, who’s been a bus driver in Niskayuna for 10 years, said she’s looking forward to the stability and benefits that will come with the end of the outsourcing agreement.
With a contract at Niskayuna, bus drivers get to bid on routes and extra work, such as field trips on nights and weekends, in order of seniority.
They also get paid sick time and holidays. Under First Student, they had none of those benefits.
“We are excited, but we are going to be also taking a lower pay rate than we were when we were working for Niskayuna,” Degener said. “I’m going to be actually taking a dollar an hour less than when I started with Niskayuna.
“When Niskayuna outsourced, I was making $20 and some-odd cents an hour. When First Student took over, I begged to get 18.”
Under her new contract with the district, Degener said she’ll compromise at about $19 an hour. To her, it’s an improvement, but still not perfect.
“Actually the bus drivers are not thrilled with the union,” she said. “But we all think it’s better than having First Student. That’s the big plus.”
Yagielski said it will be an improvement for students, as well. Especially for younger children in elementary grades and their parents, having a substitute bus driver or an unpredictable morning schedule can be a difficult way to begin a school day.
“Parents get very comfortable with the way bus drivers handle their children,” he said. “When they get a little late, that throws everybody’s schedule off.”
Because of the accelerated rehiring schedule, and also because of the difficulty finding drivers throughout the region, the district will have to work hard to make sure the transportation department is fully staffed.
After offering positions back to Niskayuna’s original drivers, the district will extend an invitation to First Student’s drivers to submit applications for remaining positions. And even then, Yagielski expects more employees will need to be recruited.
“Still in April, we’re lining our ducks in a row,” he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty solid plan in place.”
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.