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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Stillwater School Board Picks New Bus Company Amid Lawsuit

According to the conditions of a new contract authorized by the school board last week, a new bus firm will begin providing bus service to Stillwater Area Public Schools on July 1.

On Thursday, the board voted 6-1 to engage into a six-year contract with Lakeville-based Schmitty & Sons, with board member Tina Riehle voting against.

According to district authorities, the deal with Schmitty is around $1 million per year higher than the district’s current transportation operator, MTN.

MTN, located in Fridley, presently serves 83 routes in the district, delivering around 11,000 students each day. It charges the district for its services at a rate of more than $9 million per year.

Since last year, the district has been immersed in a legal battle with MTN.

The school board chose MTN in May 2020, overriding a staff recommendation, in part to save $100,000 over four years. Officials with the district claim that this decision has resulted in late and uneven service, numerous route adjustments, and stranded pupils.

Last year, when the school year began before Labor Day, some buses were up to an hour late. MTN was criticized by the district, which claimed in a September complaint that 23 percent of its routes were uncovered. Stillwater ceased providing transportation to the 1,500 pupils who lived within two miles of the school a month later.

Tashitaa Tufaa, the owner of MTN, countersued the district, citing breach of contract and racial discrimination, as well as claims that the district sought to force the firm to perform things that the contract did not demand.

District authorities alerted MTN in March that the contract will be terminated after this school year, two years before it was due to expire.

“I’m not sure anyone on this board is thrilled about having to pay more for transportation, but any one of our families will tell you that we needed to make a change,” board member Bev Petrie said. “I’m relieved that we were able to locate one bus company willing to make us an offer….” This is not a circumstance that the board has created for us.”

MTN executives did not react to a reporter’s request for comment on Tuesday.

Interim superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt said the district had been informed that MTN is running low on drivers as the school year winds down, and that some routes may be canceled or combined.

Last Monday, Bill Forbord, COO of Schmitty & Sons, assured the board that the bus firm will begin hiring drivers in the district right away.

He claimed that the company is employee-owned and run, and that it has been in operation for more than 70 years. It presently operates around 450 buses every day.

“We never missed a single journey for any of our clients because of COVID,” he stated. “I confess there were times when I drove a bus. Everyone in the firm must have a bus license, according to one of the company’s regulations. That’s something we’re very proud of. We wouldn’t have been able to handle all of the personnel that was out if we didn’t have that bench.”

CESO Transportation has been the transportation management contractor for the Stillwater district since late 2020. Schmitty & Sons has a “immaculate service record and safety record,” according to CESO’s Derrick Agate.

“We’ve investigated them, and I’m certain it’ll be a good fit for the Stillwater school system, families, and children,” he added.

Despite being “devastated by the added expenditures,” Board Chairwoman Alison Sherman said she is “glad to have a partner that can service.”

She stated, “We need to address the situation.” “No one wanted to spend levy funds on transportation, but lessons have been learned, particularly the need of adopting expert advice when it is provided. “Better days are on the horizon.”

Riehle disagreed with the board’s decision, calling it “extremely, very expensive” and implying that the board would “no longer have any spare money at this table for anything.” She also expressed her apprehension about signing a six-year contract with Schmitty & Sons. She pointed out that the superintendent’s contract with the district is just for three years. “At this moment, I believe this is a very hazardous approach,” she remarked.

Following the board meeting, the school board had a work session to examine potential modifications to the district’s transportation zones, which officials claimed might help lower the cost of the bus contract.

Prior to this year’s transportation zone adjustments due to busing issues, the district had always provided busing service beyond the state-mandated 2-mile boundary, busing all elementary students living more than a half-mile from school and all secondary students living more than one mile from school.

According to Carissa Keister, a district spokesperson, adjusting the transportation zone for the upcoming school year might “help make up for the more than $1 million increase in the new transportation vendor contract.”

She stated that the board will address the transportation zone discussion at a later date.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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