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District Seeks Court Action Against Bus Company

McKeesport Area joins charter schools in asking for relief

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 01, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

The dispute between McKeesport Area School District and Pennsylvania Coach Lines is going back to court.

On Thursday — when buses on five different routes didn’t show up as scheduled — the district filed an emergency motion before Allegheny County Judge Arnold Klein asking for a court order to compel the bus company to provide service.

The district’s move came two days after Propel Charter School and Young Scholars of Greater Allegheny Charter School filed their own request for a preliminary injunction or special relief against the bus company.

In Tuesday’s filing, attorneys for the charter schools argued that students are suffering “immediate and irreparable harm” from being “stranded and unable to attend school.”

One particular bus route — Bus 20, which serves Myer Park, Grandview, Downtown, Christy Park and the Evans Avenue corridor — was canceled on nine separate occasions, the schools allege.

The bus company said that its drivers are being enticed to work in other districts — including Pittsburgh Public Schools — for higher pay, and that they also have complained of behavioral problems on buses, including students refusing to wear face masks.

Besides McKeesport Area School District and the charter schools, buses also provide service to Serra Catholic High School, the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and other private schools.

A nationwide shortage of school bus drivers is being reported by NPR, Fortune magazine and others. According to media reports, many school bus drivers retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others took higher paying jobs with delivery services and other companies that require a commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

Other drivers have refused to return to work for fears of contracting COVID-19, according to published reports. Pupils under age 12 cannot yet receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

On Sept. 13, the governor of Massachusetts directed the National Guard to begin training to drive school buses. Up to 250 Guardsmen may be deployed, the governor’s office said.

McKeesport Area began its school year on Aug. 18. The district has a five-year contract for student transportation with McKeesport-based Pennsylvania Coach Lines that continues through the 2024-25 school year.

According to court filings from the district and the charter schools, three days after the start of the school year, Pennsylvania Coach Lines reported that it was suffering from a shortage of drivers. The bus company asked the district to renegotiate its contract and pay a higher transportation fee, so that the company in turn could offer higher wages and retain and attract drivers.

In an Aug. 26 letter to the district, David Sunstein, president of Pennsylvania Coach Lines, said the $21 per hour rate paid under the current contract leaves drivers below the poverty line. Sunstein said that on July 1, Pennsylvania Coach Lines raised its drivers to $168 per day to keep them from leaving for other jobs.

“Almost the entire amount we receive from the district now goes to pay the wages (and associated taxes) of the drivers,” Sunstein told the school district. “There is virtually nothing left to pay the other expenses including fuel, insurance, maintenance and overhead.”

In a response sent Aug. 30, district Solicitor Krisha DiMascio told the bus company that school officials were amenable to some changes, including altering some bus routes to reduce the number of stops and free up some drivers.

But, DiMascio told the bus company, the school district “will not pay additional money for services already (contracted).”

According to one court filing, the school district in a phone conversation agreed to increase payments to bus drivers on the condition that Pennsylvania Coach Lines terminate the current contract and agree to a one-year contract.

Sunstein told the board that proposal was “totally unacceptable.”

“We are doing the absolute best that we can do and are making every effort to cover every run,” Sunstein wrote, but the company needs 65 drivers to cover all of the McKeesport Area routes. Five drivers have left and six drivers were ill at the time, he said.

“Coupled with the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ push for drivers and (that district’s) $5,000 signing bonus, we are hard pressed to find replacement drivers,” Sunstein said.

According to court filings, school bus drivers have also refused to work on certain routes citing “behavioral problems,” specifically citing students’ refusal to wear face masks.

On Sept. 2, the district went to court to ask Klein to enforce its contract with Pennsylvania Coach Lines. The charter schools asked for permission to join the district’s motion on Sept. 9.

In their responses to Sunstein’s complaints, the district and the charter schools said they have addressed the behavioral problems — including supplying face masks to students — and that McKeesport Area Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. has reached out to bus drivers personally to hear their concerns.

In Thursday’s filing, the school district alleges that Pennsylvania Coach Lines was unable to provide service on Bus Route 20 on nine separate days in September, leaving 130 students with no transportation to school.

The district claims that after the charter schools complained to the court on Tuesday, Pennsylvania Coach Lines restored service to Bus Route 20 — but suspended another McKeesport Area bus route, stranding 300 students.

The district is asking Klein to compel the bus company to provide its contracted services, stop “unilaterally eliminating bus routes,” and require the company to refund money to the district “in an amount corresponding to the number of buses (for which the company) is unable to provide staffing.”

The refunded money will be used to find another bus company to supplement Pennsylvania Coach Lines’ services “to ensure that all students ... are able to continue their education,” the district’s attorneys wrote.

A hearing has not yet been scheduled on the requests.

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published October 01, 2021.

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