The Wyalusing Area School District posted school bus contractor vacancies for the coming school year on its website when many contractors didn't turn in contracts after being unhappy with the terms.

The deadline for contracts to be received from the bus drivers was 3 p.m. on Wednesday, but the district received only 13 contracts out of 31 routes.

"We have posted the route vacancy notice today and are open to new applications," said district superintendent Chester Mummau on Thursday.

He said the new deadline for submitting an application for a route is at 3 p.m. on July 27. Information is available on the district's website.

When asked for comment, Richard C. Kelly, attorney for the transportation contractors, said he was having a conference call with the bus contractors Thursday afternoon.

"All of those who have not signed are driving full-sized buses with diesel engines," he said. "The contract does not adequately cover the investment in equipment and operation for same."

He said that the majority of those who have signed are operating gasoline-powered mini-vans, and the equipment investment is significantly less for them. He added that there's a ready market for these vehicles if the contract is not renewed at the end of its one-year term, as opposed to a school bus that may be up to a $100,000 vehicle, which he said banks typically won't finance on a one-year contract.

"They're not as readily salable if the district doesn't offer renewal of the contract at the end of the one-year term. And they are flatly more expensive to operate."

"One additional significant point is that while there was dialogue with the contractors, the final proposed document was filled with qualifiers like 'plus or minus' and the agreement to 'talk about' future adjustments for fuel costs," he continued. "Despite increased operating costs, the contracts offered significantly less in compensation and the school flatly refused to share the risk of increased fuel costs and refused other basic and even no-cost contract language changes."

In a July 11 letter to Mummau, Kelly summed up the dispute the following way:

"As you know, there are many serious problems with the contract terms offered but the primary issues are the school district's refusal to share the escalating cost of fuel, the fact that the contract excludes payment for miles driven by the contractors that are reimbursable by the state, the fact that the route schedules attached to the contracts are blank, and the fact that the contract term is for one school year only."

Kelly continued:

"Previous contracts included a fuel clause that provided reimbursement for the cost of fuel if the price per gallon exceeded a specified range. This year, the fuel clause language was changed to say that if the price per gallon exceeds a specific range, 'the board and the transportation representatives will meet to discuss an increase or decrease.'"

"In reply, the contractors offered to split the increased cost of fuel 50/50 rather than receiving a full reimbursement. However, this language has been rejected." He told the superintendent, "We must assume that if you are not willing to split increased fuel costs 50/50, you have no intention of sharing the risk of rising fuel costs at all. An agreement to 'talk about' fuel costs is no agreement at all."

When asked for comment by the Review about Kelly's remarks, Mummau said, "The board did consider this suggestion, but they thought it went against the discussion they have had with the contractors the past several years about taking the fuel escalation clause out of the contract. The consensus was that to put in a fuel clause again this year, but in different wording would just cause difficulty when next year's contract is negotiated."

In addition, Kelly told the superintendent that "the contracts offered exclude payment for the miles driven from the contractor's garage to the first stop if that distance is greater than five miles. However, those 'unloaded miles' are reimbursable to the school district under the state's pupil transportation subsidy."

He wrote to Mummau: "There is no reasonable explanation for your refusal to pay for unloaded miles since the state provides dedicated student transportation funds that would cover this expense. You have not been able to explain if the school intends to NOT request reimbursement for expenses from the state that are readily available or if the school intends to use dedicated student transportation funds for some other purpose."

When asked for comment, Mummau said, "Mr. Kelly is going to need to educate me on this because what he is saying is not in alignment with the Pa Code."

Mummau continued, "The Pa Code reads: 'Approved daily mileage-mileage which the vehicle travels daily in transporting pupils to and from school, as approved by the Department, but the number of miles approved without passengers shall not exceed the number of miles with passengers.'

"In this case, the five miles we are paying the driver from their home to their first stop is not reimbursable by the state in most cases," he said, stating that he was citing PA Code 22-23.31.

Also, Kelly told the superintendent that, "In years past, transportation contracts were not fully executed until the routes were known."

"However, this year the contractors are asked to sign individual route contracts that provide absolutely no details of time or mileage. In response you have added language that the routes will be the same as last year but are subject to change 'plus or minus.' Again, the language as drafted amounts to words without meaning. 'Plus or minus' could be double or zero or anything at all."

When asked for comment, Mummau said, "Yes, we have added language that says the route mileage will be 'similar' to last year's route, but we will not know the exact route mileage until the first day of school. Families move in and out of the district, some new students are not enrolled until the day before school starts, some students will graduate after summer school, etc. We want to be as fair and accurate with the mileage as we can, both to the driver and the taxpayer."

Kelly also wrote to the superintendent: "The contractors shared with you the fact that banks will not finance replacement school buses if the transportation contract for that bus is only one school year. However, the contractors also cannot sign a multi-year contract that has reductions in the basic rate, has no fuel escalation clause, has mileage limits excluding payment for miles driven, and has other additional issues that make operating under the proposed contracts commercially impractical."

When asked for comment, Mummau said, "Yes, the school board is only interested in an annual contract due to the uncertain economic times and subsequently the uncertainty of state funding and reimbursement for transportation. If 75 students moved from the district for whatever reason, the district would need to consider eliminating a route and it would be a budget killer to be locked into a long-term contract and be unable to do so for several years. Bankers analyze risk all the time and they know that a good, reputable driver will always have work and will make loans accordingly, in my opinion."

Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: reviewtroy@thedailyreview.com.