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Evesham Township school officials anticipate BOE to consider bids for possible privatization of bus drivers at May 23 meeting

Transportation staff, teachers, parents and residents have spoken against the idea, as the district faces more than $8 million in total state aid cuts in the coming years.

Photo by Zane Clark/The Sun: Jason Lutz, a five-year bus aide with the Evesham Township School District, speaks against any potential privatization of the district’s bus drivers at this week’s ETSD Board of Education meeting. Although aides such as Lutz would not be included in potential privatization plans the district is currently exploring, Lutz spoke in defense of the district’s transportation staff.

Those waiting for months to learn if the Evesham Township School District will privatize its bus drivers might not be spinning their wheels much longer.

According to Superintendent John Scavelli, the district anticipates that bids of service from private transportation companies to potentially supply drivers for the district will be ready for the board to consider at its May 23 meeting.

Scavelli made the announcement in response to a question during public comment at this week’s BOE meeting.

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The meeting followed the now-familiar story of the board’s past few regular meetings, where a number of members from the district’s transportation department, as well as teachers and residents, spoke publicly against any potential privatization of the district’s drivers.

The issue dates back to January, when the board approved a $13,500 contract with a transportation consulting group to analyze the district’s transportation services and write a bid package, to which private transportation companies could then offer bids of service.

The district began exploring the option as a way to cut costs in response to recent cuts in the district’s state aid funding.

Originally, before cuts were announced last summer, the district would have received about $14 million in state aid as part of its $80.4 million general fund budget for 2018-2019 school year.

However, since cuts were announced, the district most recently predicted a total loss of state aid between $8 million and $9 million by the 2024–2025 school year, leaving the district with about an estimated $5.9 million in annual state aid in the years after.

As for the bid package concerning the district’s bus drivers, Scavelli said the district expected the package to be ready for public advertisement the day after this week’s meeting.

Also of note, Scavelli stated at a previous meeting that those bidding on the district’s transportation services would be required to offer a job to any of the district’s current drivers.

Scavelli also previously said that the district plans to retain its bus aides, as well as ownership of its buses. Scavelli said the district also plans to continue using its current mechanics to maintain the buses.

However, those assurances seemed to have little effect on the members of the public who spoke at this week’s meeting, with many of them wearing yellow shirts featuring slogans opposing privatization.

Many speakers once again repeatedly referenced the lower pay and lack of benefits that private companies offer to employees, leading to more frequent turnover of privatized staff and, therefore, a perceived lower quality of service.

One speaker even referenced a Februrary incident where State Police arrested a driver employed by Garden State Transport – contracted by the Shamong Township School District – on charges of the driver allegedly watching pornography in front of Shamong children while on a school bus.

In turn, speakers pointed to the ETSD’s current drivers, arguing that Evesham’s drivers take actions beyond their stated duties to ensure the well-being of the district’s students, such as doubling back for students who miss a bus after school or keeping kids on the bus if they happen to forget their house key or unexpectedly don’t have a parent home when being dropped off.

Those who spoke also said the district would have less of an ability to discipline staff at a private company than those drivers whom the district currently employees directly.

Rose Nero, a member of the district’s transportation staff and a 58-year resident of the township, said some drivers have begun to utilize sick leave to have medical procedures or surgeries they would have normally scheduled during the summer months when school was out of session, which Nero said was due to staff’s worries that they may not have health insurance by that time.

Nero criticized the board for taking several months to explore the issue of privatization, which Nero said drivers first heard about slightly before Christmas, and are now still dealing with through Easter.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the town, but the change that I see now is just not something that Marlton stands for,” Nero said.

Nero said she also conducted an informal survey at the transportation department where employees were asked to anonymously state whether they would accept a job offered by a private transportation company if the job had no pension, no or expensive health-care benefits and lower pay.

“It was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I received 36 papers back that are in my hand – not one of them is a ‘yes,’” Nero said.

Also speaking at this week’s meeting was resident Evan Scott, who said the district’s need to potentially privatize its bus drivers was a “symptom” of financial mismanagement at the state level, to which he asked the BOE to more proactively stand against so it wouldn’t harm the district’s staff, which in turn would harm the district’s schools and children.

“This relationship that we have between residents and bus drivers – as a father to a son who takes the bus, this is a relationship of trust. I can’t put a dollar sign on trust,” he said.

Also speaking at the meeting was Deborah VanCuren, president of the Evesham Township Education Association.

VanCurren said she was at the meeting, along with other ETEA members, to show “continued support” for the district’s transportation department.

“It has been months since our members were told that they might be privatized. No one ever dreamed that this would drag on for so long, and it’s not fair for our members to live with the uncertainty of whether they will have a job in the future or not,” VanCurren said.

The May 23 meeting of the Evesham Township School District Board of Education, where district officials anticipate the board may consider bid packages for the potential privatization of the district’s bus drivers, will be held at 7 p.m. at DeMasi Middle School.

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