PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence City Council voted Thursday to approve a $25-million contract extension for the city’s school bus transportation provider, less than three weeks after a driver strike forced thousands of elementary and middle school children to find alternate transportation to school for 11 days.
The two-year deal with First Student, Inc. is an extension to a contract that was first signed by the Elorza administration in 2015, meaning the city will have paid the company $60 million over five years when the agreement expires at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
In a separate action, the council approved a resolution calling for the school department to immediately prepare a request for proposal for the next bus contract, a process that officials estimate could take 18 months if the city is realistically going to find alternate suitors.
“We want to make sure the school department has enough time to go through the RFP process,” Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, who serves as vice-chair of the council’s School Department Oversight Committee. LaFortune said the school department also needs time consider other options, like revisiting its policy around neighborhood schools.
The city’s contract with First Student is not being altered from the three-year deal that expired in August in any significant way, and still includes a “force majeure” provision that clears the company of responsibility for providing transportation to students in the event of a labor dispute. But because drivers have reached a four-year contract with First Student, they aren’t allowed to strike under state law.
The company’s drivers, members of the Teamsters Local 251, were on strike for 11 school days earlier this month until the two sides reached an agreement that includes a defined-contribution retirement fund for drivers that is controlled by the union. While the city did not have a say over those contract negotiations, Mayor Jorge Elorza did offer financial support to help close the deal. After the company faced public backlash, it declined to accept about $600,000 more from the city.
Some council members said they were hesitant to support the contract because of the way First Student handled the strike, but they voted for it to avoid any further disruption to students.
“First Student has been a bad actor in this process,” Councilman John Igliozzi told his colleagues. “That’s the bottom line.”