Many school bus companies across the state and country have reached out to me about the perils of the COVID-19 crisis and what has happened to their businesses. Mass layoffs have taken place. Shops have completely ceased operations. Many customers are refusing to pay their contractors, and thus, have left school bus companies with no revenue, no employees, and no way to continue to provide the many services behind the scenes that are needed to comply with a transportation contract.
Just this week, an additional 4,000 school bus employees in New York were laid off. That number will continue to grow. There are 125,000 school bus employees in New York state alone. Private contractors make up 63% of that number. The state of New York’s education system is predominantly privately contracted services. There are 2.2 million students statewide who ride the school bus. Why has this payment issue not been treated with the severity and understanding it deserves?
School districts have told private school bus contractors that they cannot pay them under their contracts for multiple reasons, but two have been the most prevalent: first, they are not contractually obligated to pay and payment can be seen as a gift of public funds and second, the bus contractors are no longer providing services to the school districts. Let me rebut both of these ill-informed district talking points so that you may use them in your fight to be paid.
Attorneys have been doing significant research on what the school districts have said regarding payment being seen as a gift of public funds. Here is what they have come up with:
In New York state’s Constitution Article 8, Section 1, which precludes school districts from making payments that could be considered “gifts” does not apply to this situation. New York case law interpreting and applying the provision makes clear that it does not apply to a school district’s contractual payment obligations for bus services. See Niagara County v. Levitt, 97 Misc. 2d 421, 425 [Sup. Ct., Erie County 1978] [municipal expenditures for public transportation do not conflict with New York state constitution].
I agree with the above statement, and do not believe there is a valid constitutional argument. Consult with your attorneys, but this is a positive development in our discussions on how ill-informed the school districts are regarding this statement.
Now, moving on to the service dilemma — this is a common misconception of the school bus industry. School bus companies provide many more services than just "transportation" services. This industry maybe extremely narrow, but it runs miles deep. The laymen’s naiveté does not know the myriad of compliance, qualification, and regulatory hoops school bus contractors must go through before that bus gets on the road to even provide the "transportation services." These drivers and buses must be the safest people/vehicles on the road to transport our precious children.
Let’s dive into that. Before a school bus goes on the road, the following needs to happen:
• Drivers and matrons [monitors/aides] must complete their article 19-A medical examination report, state Department of Transportation (DOT) physicals, article 19-A road test, blood pressure/diabetes follow-ups, pass physical performance testing, annual and monthly abstracts (driver records), CPR and first aid certification, 13 county background checks, and other courses regulated by the New York State Education Department.
• Mechanics must maintain the vehicles in accordance with the MC300 so that the vehicle can receive a passed inspection sticker from New York State Department of Transportation. This inspection is conducted twice a year.
How are the above regulatory compliance requirements not services provided to the school districts? If these are not done, there is no transportation service to be provided.
So let’s put this into perspective. Schools will come back. In-class learning will resume. Inevitably, school buses will be needed to transport children to and from school. When school districts do not pay school bus contractors, the contractors cannot pay their employees. The employees must be laid off. Thus, they will fall out of compliance. School districts that aren’t paying contractors don’t understand how long it will take hundreds of employees to get back into compliance when they want to resume service. This could take months — yes, months. If a school district thinks that at the snap of a finger, a school bus contractor can resume service, they are in for a rude awakening.
This isn't a threat or meant to be argumentative; this is reality. Think of no school bus transportation for months while school is open. This decision made by the school districts will disrupt the education of children transported by the yellow bus for months. It will disturb their parents and prevent the community from resuming normalcy.
Without a global pandemic, getting a newly hired driver behind the wheel is a 6- to 8-week process. What will it be after the COVID-19 crisis? How will regulatory agencies be staffed? How quickly will they be able to process qualifications to put back employees into compliance? These unknowns make it virtually impossible to plan for your company, which has had to lay off the majority of its workforce.
This is not a gift of public funds and these contractors are still providing essential services to their customers. The easiest and most economically sensible decision school districts can make is to pay their transportation contractors so there will be a minimal lapse in service, if one at all.
I hope these talking points can be used to educate school districts, attorneys, and the general public to show them that we must pay our school bus contractors. This must be done so that these privately-owned companies may continue to employ and pay the people who have and will continue to transport our children safely every day.
The school bus industry deserves attention, before it is too late.
Corey Muirhead is the president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association. He is also the executive vice president of Logan Bus and Affiliates in Ozone Park, N.Y.