WMRSD school board awards 5-year bus contract to W. W. Berry, not First Student
July 07, 2010
WHITEFIELD — W. W. Berry Transportation — and not First Student, Inc. — will be the name emblazoned on the yellow school buses that will draw up to local bus stops this fall. The Lisbon based company will take over the 17 routes of the White Mountains Regional School District as a result of a Thursday afternoon school board vote.
The school board approved the contract 4 to 1, with Rep. Herb Richardson the lone dissenter, to award a 5-year bus contract to W. W. Berry of Lisbon at a special meeting at 4 p.m. on July 1.
Before that vote, Rep. Richardson's motion to award the contract to First Student Inc.'s Lancaster branch failed on a 1 to 4 vote. Two board members — Cathy Warren of Carroll and Jim Brady of Jefferson — were absent.
The decision leaves the Ohio-based First Student's Lancaster location with just one contract — SAU 35, which includes Franconia, Easton, Sugar Hill and Bethlehem — according to company spokesperson Nicole Jones.
Ms. Jones said that with just one contract the future of the Lancaster office is uncertain. The office employs thee full-time workers and 17 part-time drivers, who work 20 hours a week or more.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Harry Fensom said that, on average, there was a five percent difference in price, adding up to a total of $177,116 over the five-year period.
The W. W. Berry bid sheet lists the first total cost of operating the regular, special ed, and career and technical education (CTE) routes as costing $695,596 whereas First Student lists $727,222. The difference in the fifth year is $766,753 vs. $802,375.
Berry's per-mile bid of $2.45 is higher than First Student's $2.10 for athletic-field trips, but Dr. Fensom pointed out that the savings secured in the 166,860 miles of regular routes, 38,880 special ed route miles, and 15,300 miles of CTE routes — a grand total of 221,040 miles — more than compensate for these higher special run rates.
A third company that indicated interest in the request for proposal (RFP) process chose not to bid.
Matching price offered, rejected
At Thursday's school board meeting First Student manager Fran Gleason asked what had happened to the company's letter offering to match the Berry price offer.
Mr. Boggess replied that that question could not be answered since that letter is not a public document, falling under the rules of executive session. While bid documents are public, negotiations are non-public.
Ms. Jones confirmed that First Student had sent a letter offering to match the lower bid, and was disappointed with the board's decision to move on. "Certainly we've enjoyed serving the community well and faithfully for a decade," she said. "While we're disappointed that the board voted to go with another provider, we're committed to a making a smooth transition," Ms. Jones explained, noting that First Student is encouraging their drivers to apply with the new company.
First Student has 18 locations in New Hampshire, including the Lancaster depot, with the next closest in Belmont.
Bus company owner Wallie William Berry of Lisbon promised that he would interview any current First Student driver seeking employment, although there are no hiring guarantees.
School board member Randy Boggess of Lancaster said he was comfortable voting for the Berry contract believing that he will get both quality and price.
Rep. Richardson said he was voting "no" as a gut reaction, believing that when something "ain't broke you don't fix it." He also is concerned that parents would have to make a toll call to Lisbon to reach a dispatcher and was concerned that Mr. Berry has not lined up a parking area for the needed buses.
Reached on the phone on Friday morning, Mr. Berry said that, with a contract in hand, these matters would be determined over the summer. He pointed out that he has a dispatcher in Groveton to handle his seven-bus operation there.
Dr. Fensom answered the questions that Rep. Richardson had raised at the previous board meeting on June 28.
All buses will be equipped with two-way radios, capable of communicating with each other and with the base station.
The N. H. Motor Vehicle Commission must approve all buses, which must carry a current safety inspection sticker, Dr. Fensom said. He checked out W. W. Berry's process for dealing with complaints and behavior issues and found them reasonable and very fair to students and their families.
The contract stipulates that two buses will be available at all times on standby during normal school operating hours.
In other action, the board voted unanimously, 5 to 0, to approve a lease/purchase agreement for a 2010 Minotour DRW 051MS 17-passenger bus, plus two wheelchair stanchions, from W. C. Cressey & Son of Kennebec, Me., with financing from Daimler Truck Financial of Fort Worth, Texas. Chairman Greg Odell pointed out that the vote is contingent the contracts being checked out by the school's attorney.
This bus is operated by WMRSD employees and is separate from the school bus contract. New board member Jessica Ryan of Whitefield, who was appointed on June 29 to fill the vacancy created by Ray Gradual's resignation, noted that the agenda of her very first meeting had involved some pretty hefty issues.
W. W. Berry still standing
By Edith Tucker
W. W. Berry Transportation has been in business since 1972 and operates buses in Groveton, Colebrook, Clarksville, Columbia, Lisbon, Littleton, Landaff, and Lyman as well as in Waterford, Guildhall, Concord, and Lunenburg-Gilman in Vermont.
In a telephone interview Mr. Berry pointed out proudly that he is a local company that has withstood competition from out-of-state, including that of First Student that, he said, maintains its North American headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, and its international one in London, England.
First Student in North America serves 1,500-plus districts, hires 68,000 employees, and carries 4 million students, according to its website.
"We're the local company, with our headquarters only 30 miles away," Mr. Berry said.
Twice Lisbon students have dedicated their yearbook to him, and he received the honor once in Littleton, he noted.
"It's all about kids," he said. "I love the kids."
He is eager to hire First Student drivers — "I'd be crazy not to" — and said that their pay would be "super-close to what they're getting right now."
He urged now-disgruntled and upset First Student drivers to arrange interviews and find out first-hand that he is "not the big bad wolf I've been made out to be."
SAU 36 Interim Superintendent Dr. Fensom said that Mr. Berry is slated to come to meet with the administrative team on Friday to go over logistical details, ensuring that students will not arrive at schools before staff is on hand, as has sometimes happened in the past.
A First Student driver on hand at the July 1 WMRSD School Board meeting asked about Mr. Berry's health, which she had heard was problematic.
Asked that question on the telephone, Mr. Berry replied that he is in good health for a 62-year-old man and has trimmed down his girth by cutting his weight in half, which could be misinterpreted as indicating ill health. "I've had some health issues," he said, "but when I looked out this morning, I found myself on the sunny side of the grass."