The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education unanimously voted to allow its superintendent to continue negotiations with transportation vendor First Student while pursuing other options for transportation without putting out another request for proposals during its meeting Monday in Soldotna.
With the start of the school year just 42 days away, district spokeswoman Pegge Erkeneff said the district needed to be able to move swiftly in resolving how students would be bussed for the coming school year so looking into other options, including in-house bussing and using another company, were necessary.
"It's really about timing," she said. "We want busses rolling on Aug. 21 with safe, efficient transportation for all of our students."
She said administration checked with their legal counsel to ensure they could move forward with the possibility of providing their own transportation or awarding a contract to another company without going through the proposal process again.
During Monday's meeting David Kimura, First Student bus driver, said he represented the bus drivers and attendants and wanted to comment on the recommendation before the board to give the superintendent the opportunity to look into other options.
'At this time we believe that there are no vendors in this area with the amount of busses that is necessary to provide services for the Kenai Peninsula School District," Kimura said.
He said First Student's fleet was aging and expressed concern with operating 14-year-old busses in the upcoming year.
"Busses break down and an extension and a waiver for the busses is not a real good solution," he said. "Had we come to an agreement with this contact in May or as early as April, the company would have had all the busses replaced in time for the new school year ... I think it's urgent that the school district take a look at our contract, get it settled, so we can take care of the kids like we should."
According to April board minutes, the district estimated First Student's proposal to cost the district more than $7.5 million over the course of the five-year contract.
Erkeneff said the board initially approved the "financial piece" of the contract, but First Student came back with 29 changes to the contract that have since been the subject of the ongoing negotiations.
"Technically the school district could come back and say, 'This was the (proposal), this was the amount that was approved, this is what we're offering the funding for.' The school district did not have to come back to negotiations," she said. "The school district wants a contract that will provide safe, reliable transportation to the students."
Cal Hull, senior vice president for First Student, said the company believed the request for proposal, or RFP, clearly allowed negotiations of terms and conditions.
Hull agreed with Kimura that replacing aging busses in time for the first day of school would be impossible at this point as it typically takes about three months to manufacture and deliver new busses to the area.
"We notified the district back in March that we were getting to be at the place where we were at the window of not getting the busses back in time for school," Hull said. "We said, 'We're not going to be able to get busses if we don't do something soon.' They've known for a number of months ... we reminded them of that on numerous occasions."
Hull said there had been back and forth on the contract and the remaining items up for dispute, including the definition of a "default" in the current contract, penalties assessed if First Student couldn't perform its duties, and other proposals including a potential scholarship fund for seniors, were critical for First Student.
"First Student has been a longtime provider of services on the Peninsula and we have a vested interest in wanting to be that provider," he said. "We don't want to have contentious negotiations ... our desire is to be able to move through these issues, is to be done and not have a contentious finish to these negotiations."
Hull said he was aware that the district was exploring other options for transportation.
"In all honesty the district has always had that option and we understand that they need to make a decision that's in the best interests of the district," he said. "We hope that their decision is to work with us and award the contract to First Student. We're committed to doing what we can to be a good partner to the district."
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.