Vote expected on Salem busing contract

·3 min read

Jun. 11—SALEM — The School Committee could vote Friday afternoon to change how the district buses children and the meeting has sparked outcry even before its called to order.

Supporters of Salem Public School's in-house bus drivers and monitors rallied in front of City Hall Thursday afternoon, calling for the city to hold onto 22 union jobs that are at risk of being lost to a proposal that would change the nature of who drives the buses.

Today, the district's transportation operation is handled primarily by a fleet of city-owned buses and 22 city employees, supplemented by a contract with North Reading-based NRT Bus Inc. for eight routes. The 22 city employees are represented by AFSCME Council 93.

The contract with NRT expires June 30, and for the past couple months the city has run a public bidding process for the next transportation contract. That contract covered a range of options, from either keeping service the same as it is today to outsourcing the entire operation, which would eliminate the 22 city jobs. Superintendent Steve Zrike has said moving the transportation duties entirely to NRT, the lone bidder on the contract, would save the city about $1 million over five years.

The School Committee will hold a special meeting Friday, June 11 at 3:30 p.m. The agenda lists the discussion as focusing on whether "to award/contract as many routes as necessary to a vendor for in-district special education and general education transportation with the goal of fully assigning to a vendor over the next 3 years."

The proposal, as designed, would save 11 of the 22 positions and keep them in house, while another seven employees would be offered openings elsewhere in the district as a paraprofessional, custodian or other supporting role, according to Zrike. The remaining four positions are either retirements or employees with plans to retire.

The proposal came together after district officials met with any impacted employees who wanted to sit down. Most of them did, Zrike said.

"Some were interested in working for a vendor. Some could retire from Salem Public Schools and get those benefits and work for the vendor," Zrike said. "It really runs the gamut, but our plan allows for everybody to have a landing spot that met their needs — and that was something that was important to the School Committee, important to the mayor, and I feel very confident we've achieved that."

The new plan would save the city between $100,000 and $130,000 per year over three years, down from about $250,000 per year if NRT took over the full contract, according to Zrike.

"We landed in a spot where we think this recommendation is in the best interest of all parties involved," Zrike said. "We'll work with each of them to figure out what the best option is, but based on the feedback they gave us, this plan meets those needs."

Still, a crowd formed in front of City Hall late Thursday afternoon to call for Salem bus drivers to be protected. Many participating in the rally were teachers backing up their system colleagues.

"They're part of the special needs team, part of the circle of safe people," said Tracy Kapantais, a para representative at Salem High School and member of the Salem Teachers Union. "It's important. A lot of them need the routine."

Kaylee Roberts, a bus driver holding a sign at the rally, said "we need to keep the kids with the staff they're familiar with."

Friday's special meeting will begin at 3:30 p.m., is entirely virtual, and the bus contract issue is the only item on the agenda. To attend via the video conferencing platform Zoom, visit bit.ly/2TSqLvP.

To respond to this story or suggest another, contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.