October 25, 2006
Montauk Bus: Next on the Chopping Block?
Should John Mensch be worried? In the wake of the East Hampton School District's sudden shift from using the Schaefer Bus Company to transport students to beginning its own in-house busing program, the question arose: Will the same fate befall Mensch's Montauk Bus Company?
The answer so far is "not just yet."
Montauk Bus has provided transportation for special ed students and district kids attending private schools for the last 15 years. Last spring, however, Mensch noticed a difference in the way the district did business with him. Although the district voted in May to award him the six-figure bid for the specialized transportation, the contracts never arrived on time. In fact, the district failed to follow the timeline prescribed by state law, which could result in a loss of state aid, Mensch contended.
Then, once a contract did arrive this fall, after the school year began, the document referenced only a one-year agreement, not the expected three. Additionally, the agreement spoke to only some of the runs he's traditionally provided.
Mensch fired off a letter to the school board and state officials, officially lodging complaints. It ends, ". . . under no circumstances do I wish to be treated the way you treated Schaefer Bus Service."
On one level at least, the "treatment" has already begun. Publicly the owners of Schaefer bus have said the district drove them out of business by hiring away drivers with the promise of better pay and benefits. School officials maintain they only hired one driver. According to Mensch, his drivers have been solicited to work for the district as well. It's one thing if the district wants to go into the bus business, he said, "but the way they're doing it, they're killing everybody around them."
Additionally, the district has assumed the responsibility for covering bus runs formerly handled by Montauk Bus. Superintendent Ray Gualtieri said the district was well within its rights to award a bid to Montauk, and then contract for just a portion of the runs. In fact, the run reduction should come as no surprise to Mensch, he pointed out. It was last spring when the district decided Montauk's bids were too high and to move forward with purchasing four buses to begin its own program.
Gualtieri pointed out that the Springs School District, too, is "going into the bus business," in reaction to "exorbitant" charges from Montauk Bus.
While the superintendent expressed no firm plan to discard Montauk, he noted that if indeed, as the year progresses it becomes apparent that the district could handle the runs more economically on its own, he will recommend the switch over.
From the district's point of view, Montauk Bus's high rates played a major role in precipitating the bus crisis. Faced with an excessive bid from Montauk earlier this year, the district, according to Gualtieri, "begged" Schaefer Bus to consider competing for the runs. When Schaefer declined, the district set about getting its own buses. From there, staff was reportedly cannibalized from Schaefer leading to what the company claims was a severe shortage of qualified drivers.
Meanwhile, in Springs, officials also chafed at Montauk's prices. A program to transform to in-house service has already begun. Officials expect to have a total in-house transportation program in place by the time Montauk's contract expires at the end of the year. "He's pricing himself out of contention," Springs superintendent Tom Quinn said this week. He estimated the district will save well over $100,000 by becoming transportation "self-sufficient."