$600K in ‘savings’ from Providence bus strike will go to First Student

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration helped Providence’s school bus transportation provider and its striking drivers resolve their contentious dispute by agreeing to waive $600,000 in savings the city would have achieved by not paying the private company during an 11-day strike.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, confirmed Monday the funds will go to First Student, Inc. over the next two years, but she did not say how the money will be used. The company is currently in the process of seeking a contract extension with the city.

“The city will be applying a portion of the cost savings realized during the strike to the contract with First Student moving forward,” Crowell wrote in an email to Eyewitness News. “That will come in the form of $300K for the next two years and will not alter the overall cost of the contract.”

The 11-day strike disrupted transportation services for 9,000 elementary and middle school students each day, causing absenteeism to soar throughout the district. First Student and Teamsters Local 251 reached a resolution Friday when the company agreed to contribute more to the drivers’ defined-contribution retirement plan.

The drivers had been seeking to enter the Teamsters’ pension fund – known as a defined-benefit – but the union instead convinced First Student to begin contributing to a retirement fund that is overseen by the union. The company will contribute 50 cents an hour for each driver and drivers will be allowed to contribute to the fund themselves, according to Nick Williams, the union’s business agent.

Williams said the Providence School Board also agreed to create an oversight committee to ensure First Student follows through on its payments to the retirement system. Nicholas Hemond, the president of the board, confirmed Monday that the board plans to review how it can hold First Student accountable.

Elorza had repeatedly offered to provide city funding to help the two sides reach a deal, but he threatened to pull his offer if an agreement wasn’t reached by Friday. City officials also said they would consider searching for a new transportation provider, but Crowell’s confirmation that First Student will receive the $600,000 over the next two years suggests the city is sticking with the company.

First Student has worked with the city for more than a decade, and won a three-year, $35-million contract in 2015. That agreement included two, one-year extensions, but the City Council yet hasn’t given final approval to the renewed deal.

“Normally, under the contract, if they don’t provide service, they don’t get paid,” Councilman Sam Zurier, who chairs the School Department Oversight Committee, said. “But we’ve been informed by putting up that money, the city helped facilitate the settlement.”

Zurier said his committee plans to “make our own review and our own assessment” on the contract in the coming weeks.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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