Board members of the Exeter Township School District in Reading, Pennsylvania took great pride in their transportation department. In the fall of 2011, after reviewing a study of their school bus operations by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, the board learned some very satisfying news: the district spent $447 for each child it transported in the 2008-2009 school year, far below the state median of $847 and the county median of $861. This was reason to celebrate.
But the board did not celebrate. Instead, they announced in July that they were taking bids to privatize the district’s bus fleet. Big mistake.
After members of the Exeter Township Education Support Professionals Association (ETESPA) learned that the board was considering privatizing 54 bus driver jobs, they immediately came up with an anti-privatization plan that centered on gaining community support.
The local’s grassroots strategy included distributing petition forms (each page held 20 signatures), creating lawn signs, contacting the media, researching the case against privatization and informing parents, neighbors, and business leaders.
Soon, district residents were discussing the privatization issue at Little League games, family picnics, business meetings, beauty parlors, and health clubs. The board didn’t know what hit them, and in September ultimately decided against privatizing the bus fleet.
“I was upset,” says Tracy Bennett, a parent with two children who use the district’s bus service. “There’s a level of care with these bus drivers who live in the community. Drivers with a private company don’t know our kids.”
Like Bennett, many others shared the same respect and sentiment toward their bus drivers. More than 1,200 residents signed a petition opposing the move. They also began showing up at board meetings and posting signs on their lawns that said, simply, “SUPPORT OUR BUS DRIVERS.”
Gale Faber, a district bus driver for 24 years and graduate of Exeter High School, said almost all of the drivers work, live, vote, shop and worship in the district. Several have done so since the 1970s.
“I drove three brothers from one family,” she says. “Now, I drive their kids. A lot of us have stories like that.”
Laurelei Hartman has been a bus driver for 21 years and is co-representative of the bus garage building along with Faber. She was surprised by the high level of community support.
“When we asked neighbors and parents to help us get signatures (for the petitions), they ended up asking for more and more forms,” she said. “When we asked them to attend board meetings, they did.”
The board received bids from Berks County Intermediate Unit, STA of Pennsylvania, and First Student. In addition to possibly restructuring the transportation department, board members had an additional incentive to outsource bus services. Pennsylvania pays a higher reimbursement rate to districts that hire an outside company for transportation.
Mark Lynn is Exeter’s Pennsylvania State Education Association UniServ Director. He says the decision to take bids was motivated in part by budget considerations.
“The majority block on this school board ran for election on a platform of fiscal conservatism,” Lynn says. “I believe they sought the bids to satisfy voters that they were leaving no stone unturned in the search for budgetary savings.”
Transportation services, along with food and maintenance jobs, are the most likely to be privatized at schools. When education support professional (ESP) jobs are transferred to the private sector through the hiring of service companies, ESPs either lose those jobs or are hired back by a subcontractor, typically with lower pay and fewer benefits. After privatization, employees also can lose collective bargaining protections such as, grievance procedure, health and safety protection, and security against arbitrary treatment on the job.
“Many of the petition-signers and those who showed up at the board meetings were parents and community members,” says Lynn, who credits ETESPA members with skillfully approaching residents and explaining what was at stake should the board decide to privatize.
“I mean, we copied hundreds of petitions and carried them with us all the time — in our cars, our purses, our spare pockets,” says Faber. “The petitions made it possible for us to talk one on one with residents.”
The petition forms also allowed business owners like hair stylist Susan Fritz to hang the petitions in her beauty salon.
“A lot of Susan’s customers are parents of the children I drive or drove at one time,” says Faber. “We got a lot of signatures from her.”
Petitions also flew out the window at Frank’s Pizza Parlor. The proprietor’s daughter-in-law, Andrea Amato, happens to be a bus driver and ETESPA member. On the prominent chalk board hanging at the Reiffton Fire Company, a firefighter’s organization and social club, the following message was posted: Support Exeter Drivers.
“That’s all it said, but everyone knew what it meant after our campaign got going,” says Hartman.
According to Hartman, community support against privatization was garnered one signature, one business, and one neighbor at a time. Bennett, for example, went door to door in her neighborhood.
“A number of parents I met were not aware about the privatization issue,” Bennett says. “I took quite a bit of time explaining to them what could happen to our drivers. Once they heard, they wanted to help.”