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Bus Merger Revs Up Costs

This article is more than 12 years old.

As kids make their way to class this morning, parents and schools are finding that busing them there is costing more.

In part, that's because gas is more expensive. But there's also something else at play.

The country's two biggest school bus companies merged last year, and now districts have just one bidder for their school bus contract. WBUR's Fred Thys reports.


FRED THYS: It's just after 2 p.m. at Weymouth High School. In front of the building, you can hear the last bell go off inside. On cue, 26 school bus drivers start their engines one by one to take the students home.

For their parents, this is an increasingly expensive ride. Weymouth, like many communities in Massachusetts, makes parents of students above the sixth grade pay for bus service. In Weymouth, each student's parents will have to pay up to $235 per child. That's because the town has to pay more to transport students.

Mary Jo Livingstone, the Weymouth Superintendent of Schools, says in past years, it was typical for the town to get several major bidders for its bus contract.

MARY JO LIVINGSTONE: Mostly First Student and Laidlaw were the two companies that would bid for our business.

THYS: And then, last year, because of the merger, everything changed.

LIVINGSTONE: We actually had only one responsive bidder, and that was the First Student Laidlaw Company, and we've been very happy with First Student, so it wasn't that we were looking necessarily to get a different bidder, but it would be better for pricing purposes to have at least one major competitor.

THYS: So she personally sent a request for bids to the other four biggest school bus companies in the country. Not a single one responded.

LIVINGSTONE: And so we saw about a twenty per cent increase in pricing, which is just an incredible jump in one year.

THYS: Livingstone says the rising cost of transporting children created big deficits in other parts of the school budget. So the schools cut back on instructional materials. And this is happening all over Massachusetts.

Weymouth's neighbors face similar problems. Rockland received just one bid, from First Student, in part because the town insisted on buses that are less than five years old, and only First Student had those buses. Abington, too, received one bid, again from First Student. Abington's costs went up by sixteen per cent. And other towns face even bigger increases.

East Bridgewater's contract ends in June. The town's school business administrator, Ralph Dumas, has budgeted a fifty per cent cost increase for buses next year. At its meeting this week, the school committee will consider eliminating all bus service to children it's not legally required to transport, so high school students would no longer be able to take the bus.

RALPH DUMAS: Rather than running 14 buses around town three times a day, elementary, middle and high school, we're going to be able to reduce that to seven buses running only for the elementary and the middle school students.

THYS: That means a thousand students taking the bus this year would have to find another way to get to school. The alternative, Dumas says, would be to cut ten teachers.

As high as bus costs have gotten, First Student says it is not to blame. The bus company says there's a simple explanation for why bids have had to go up so much. Clifton Johnson is the business development manager for First Student for New York and New England.

CLIFTON JOHNSON: Over the last twelve-month period, motor fuels have gone up forty per cent.

THYS: Johnson says buses, too, are more expensive, in part because they have to meet higher fuel emission standards. And, he says, this is just a more expensive part of the country.

JOHNSON: First Student is the largest operator of school buses in North America. We have over 62 000 buses on the road every day, and I can run a bus a lot less expensively in rural Georgia than I can in Worcester County.

THYS: When First Student merged with Laidlaw last year, Attorney-General Martha Coakley forced the company to divest itself of bus contracts in parts of the state where it would become a monopoly.

But somehow, the settlement doesn't seem to have brought more competition to help school districts keep the costs of transporting children down. We wanted to talk to the Attorney General about whether her settlement with the bus company is working, she hasn't returned our e-mails and phone calls.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys.

This program aired on March 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.


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