Simmering Labor Dispute Leaves Bussing Unsettled for Start of School Year

By RACHEL KOVAC

Vineyard schools superintendent James Weiss fielded his first controversy this week when a simmering labor dispute between bus drivers and the company under contract with the school district bubbled into the public arena.

School bus drivers turned out in force for a Martha's Vineyard Regional High School committee meeting Monday night to air their grievances. Nine days before the start of the school year, drivers told the high school committee that MV Coachlines might not have enough drivers to roll buses next Thursday because of unpaid bonuses, inhospitable working conditions, reduced routes and distrust of company president Edward W. Pigman.

"Are you aware of the disenfranchisement of the drivers with Mr. Pigman?" asked Michael Kemley, a school bus driver. "A lot of the drivers aren't going to drive on principle alone. There has been a serious breach."

After a flawed bid process this summer, the high school committee and up-Island school committee awarded a one-year school bus contract to MV Coachlines, which is a subsidiary of Transit Resource Center in Winter Springs, Fla. MV Coachlines managed the school buses last year for the first time after the school district had a dispute with Island Transport, which had held the contract for 20 years.

Now drivers are saying they will not work for Mr. Pigman. Mr. Weiss, however, said he has been assured there will be enough drivers to run the school buses on opening day. Mr. Pigman has shown Mr. Weiss a list of drivers, including 13 full-time, nine part-time and three in training.

"This is a very fluid situation and I will be calling him every day to make sure," Mr. Weiss said Thursday.

The pool of people who are licensed to operate a school bus is small, and certification is a long and expensive process that requires hours of training and a trip off-Island for testing. Several drivers have said while their names were on Mr. Pigman's list they have told him they will not drive for him. Drivers met last night to receive route assignments from MV Coachlines.

The meeting Monday was not the first time Mr. Weiss and some school committee members had heard about the bus drivers' feelings. On August 17 Mr. Weiss and school committee members Robert Tankard and David E. Morris met with 12 drivers and Scott Dario, owner of Island Transport, in the parking lot of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.

The meeting was taped by Tom Dresser, a school bus driver and an occasional contributor to the Gazette, who provided the Gazette with the tape yesterday.

During the meeting, bus drivers laid out their grievances with MV Coachlines management, detailing in particular problems with their salary bonuses and registering concern over Mr. Pigman's ability to effectively make decisions regarding the Island from his base in Florida.

"My number one concern is that the kids get transported safely," Bob Holt said. "The drivers who drive these kids think of them as their kids. All of a sudden we've got this guy from thousands of miles away who doesn't care about that. I'm personally disappointed. I'm concerned they're not going to get to school safely and we're being treated like second-class citizens."

On the subject of bonuses - promised to be awarded in June and still not received as of the August 17 meeting - John Pearson described an exchange with Mr. Pigman in which the manager said they would get the bonuses in three parts and only if they agreed to work for him again this year, a move some in the group characterized as blackmail.

Subsequently, 14 drivers retained Vineyard attorney Marilyn H. Vukota to plead their case. Ms. Vukota sent a letter to Mr. Pigman on August 19 asking for the bonuses to be paid.

The bonuses were paid the following day.

Many of the drivers told Mr. Weiss they have stepped up to the plate before for the schools, but they will not work for Mr. Pigman. They also said they are not collectively organizing but are making individual decisions whether to drive for the start of school.

Mr. Weiss, Mr. Tankard and Mr. Morris encouraged the drivers to attend the next school committee meeting and air their grievances.

"It's a done deal," Mr. Weiss told them. "We voted a one-year agreement. I'll be very honest with you, if there's a way to get out from under all of this nonsense, that's for me. I don't know what it is yet."

At the high school committee meeting Monday, drivers were given the opportunity to speak, but Mr. Weiss encouraged school committee members not to get involved because the drivers' grievances are with MV Coachlines, which is contracted by the school, and the drivers are not the school's employees.

"Some of the drivers are not going to drive period," Mr. Kemley said. "Without going into all the dynamics, you have a serious problem on your hands."

Mr. Tankard said his concern is that there are real problems and school is around the corner. He said he does not want to be in a position where there are not enough drivers to run the buses on opening day.

Mr. Weiss said if the drivers choose not to show up on opening day after agreeing to work, then they are not the kind of people he wants working in the district. The remark caused uproar among the drivers and David Rossi, a school committee member and Edgartown police officer, calmed the room with a sharp command.

Drivers also questioned whether there was impropriety in the bidding process.

In March school committee members agreed to seek a one-year transportation contract. A request for proposals (RFP) was issued for bids from outside vendors and contractors after several months of writing, rewriting and scrutiny by lawyers. Responses were due June 17.

Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, was told on June 20 by the office of the state inspector general that transportation bids only can be offered to contractors as an invitation to bid, not an RFP.

Under an invitation to bid the decision only can be made by a yes or no vote, and state law requires the schools to accept the lowest suitable bid. An RFP allows each section of the proposal to be judged individually to determine which bid to accept.

Ms. Tierney put the transportation out for bid again at the beginning of July, this time as an invitation to bid, with responses due July 17. Two vendors submitted bids for the transportation contract - MV Coachlines for $1,888,907 and Island Transport for $1,997,836. The contract was awarded to MV Coachlines in late July.

Mr. Weiss admitted Monday that many people knew the bid amounts from the failed RFP process, but did not know who said what to whom. He also said that MV Coachlines bid $100,000 less during the invitation to bid process while Island Transport's bid did not change.

Mr. Pigman explained the reason behind that last month when the committee met to award the contract. He said during the RFP process his company was agreeing to provide additional services such as consulting and training.

Yesterday Mr. Dario said he was aware that Ms. Tierney spoke with Mr. Pigman about the RFP bids and that she later apologized to him for talking with Mr. Pigman.

He also said right now he believes MV Coachlines is violating its contract with the school system because the bidder must have "no pending or threatened labor disputes, strike, or work stoppages."

MV Coachlines has also dropped from having 15 routes to 13 routes, which concerns Mr. Dario because children will be on buses longer and drivers will work longer hours.

Mr. Dario also said he wonders why he has not received his $32,000 check from the school district.

When a vendor bids for a contract it must hand over an insurance check. If the vendor does not receive the bid the check is returned - but after six weeks of waiting Mr. Dario was told by the superintendent's office that the check couldn't be released to him because the contract has not been finalized.

On Monday Mr. Weiss said the contract had not been signed due to final negotiations.

Mr. Dario said he is aware of the situation and is prepared to step in and manage the school buses if needed.

"The school bus drivers are great," he said. "I feel personally the drivers have done so much for the school and the kids. This is all about transporting kids safely."

For now Mr. Weiss will continue to monitor the situation, but he said the buses will run next Thursday.

"I want to make sure the kids get to school on Monday," he said. "I'll be calling daily to make sure until the buses roll."