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Bus Company Sues District, Local Officials

Lawsuit claims MASD refused to address issues for political reasons

By Staff Reports
The Tube City Almanac
March 06, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

A local bus company that lost a contract to transport McKeesport Area School District students is suing the city, the district and several area officials, claiming its problems were caused by political manipulations.

Pennsylvania Coach Lines has filed suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against the City of McKeesport, the school district, state Sen. Jim Brewster, Mayor Michael Cherepko, school director and mayoral candidate Joe Lopretto, former school Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr., and city administrator Tom Maglicco.

The company, based on Rebecca Street in the city, was replaced prior to the 2022-23 school year by Krise Transportation after parents repeatedly complained that Pennsylvania Coach Lines was canceling buses without warning, stranding students and forcing them to miss classes.

But the company alleges that those problems arose after the district took action to punish Pennsylvania Coach Lines because its president, David Sunstein, was an active supporter of Nicole Ziccarelli, a Westmoreland County Republican who ran against Brewster in the 2020 state senate election.

The company alleges political retaliation, violations of the First Amendment, fraud, abuse of process, defamation and criminal conspiracy, and is asking for a judgement in excess of $50,000 against the district, the mayor, the city, Brewster and the other defendants.

The defendants have not yet responded to the action in court, but District Solicitor Gary Matta said last week McKeesport Area School District would not discuss the litigation publicly.

Matta said he had learned of the lawsuit only a few hours earlier, and that he had forwarded the information to the district’s insurance carrier.

Pennsylvania Coach Lines was awarded a contract in 2018 to transport McKeesport Area students. But in October 2021, the district and two charter schools went to court to seek an injunction against Pennsylvania Coach Lines, alleging that students were suffering “immediate and irreparable harm” from being “stranded and unable to attend school.”

One bus route in particular, serving Myer Park, Grandview, Downtown, Christy Park and the Evans Avenue corridor, had supposedly been canceled on nine separate days in September and October 2021, the district and the charter schools alleged.

At the time, Pennsylvania Coach Lines said in court filings that the bus company was facing a nationwide shortage of drivers that affected other school transportation companies in the wake of COVID-19.

The company further alleged in court filings that its drivers were being enticed to work in other districts — including Pittsburgh Public Schools — for higher pay.

Pennsylvania Coach Lines also said McKeesport Area students exhibited behavior problems, including refusal to wear face masks during the pandemic, that was causing its drivers to quit.

The district argued in court that Pennsylvania Coach was unable to fulfill the terms of its contract and was trying to “place blame on ... children” in what Matta argued was “an illogical and baseless accusation.”

In written filings, the district blamed Pennsylvania Coach’s inability to cover all of the bus routes on its own organizational issues.

In the most recent lawsuit filed Feb. 23, Pennsylvania Coach Lines alleges that the district refused to work with the company to adjust bus routes and stops because Sunstein had erected a sign supporting Ziccarelli on his property.

The lawsuit alleges that in 2020, Lopretto, who was then president of the McKeesport Area School Board, visited Pennsylvania Coach Lines’ garage and told the company “there would be problems” if the company didn’t remove the political sign.

The suit further claims that Brewster visited an unnamed Pennsylvania Coach Lines employee who was supposedly displaying a sign for Ziccarelli and threatened that employee with “consequences” if Pennsylvania Coach Lines didn’t support Brewster.

In the lawsuit, Pennsylvania Coach Lines claims that the school district inflated its student rosters to ensure that the company would lose money providing its services, and that it “manufactured a controversy so that it could haul Pennsylvania Coach into court,” which it alleges included making “false statements to the news media” to retaliate against the company.

In 2022, Pennsylvania Coach Lines previously sued the school district and Krise, claiming the district and the competing bus company were conspiring to steal its employees along with proprietary information relating to school bus routes.

That lawsuit was dismissed after Krise and the school district agreed not to directly contact any Pennsylvania Coach Lines employees with job offers.

Pennsylvania Coach Lines is being represented Ray F. Middleman and Shane D. Valenzi of the Pittsburgh law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

Originally published March 06, 2023.

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