A new bus company will provide bus service to Stillwater Area Public Schools beginning July 1 under the terms of a new contract approved last week by the school board.
The board voted 6-1 on Thursday to enter into a six-year contract with Lakeville-based Schmidty & Sons; Board member Tina Rihle had the dissenting vote.
District officials said the contract with Schmidty is about $1 million a year more than the district’s contract with its current transportation company, MTN.
The Fridley-based MTN currently covers 83 routes in the district, transporting approximately 11,000 students each school day. It bills the district more than $9 million per year for its services.
The district has been engaged in litigation with MTN since last year.
In May 2020, the school board hired MTN, going against an employee’s recommendation, to save nearly $100,000 over four years. District officials say that decision has led to late and inconsistent service, frequent diversions and stranded students.
When the school year started before Labor Day last year, some buses ran late by an hour. The district blamed MTN, alleging in a September 1 trial that 23 percent of its routes were being exposed. A month later, Stillwater stopped offering rides to the roughly 1,500 students living within two miles of the school.
MTN owner Tashita Tufa countered the District, alleging breach of contract and racial discrimination, claiming that the District tried to force the company to do things the contract didn’t require.
In March, district officials informed MTN that it would terminate the contract after this school year, two years before it was due to expire.
“I don’t know if anyone on this board is happy with the fact that we’re being asked to pay more for transportation, but any of our families can tell you that we need to make changes, Board member Bev Petrie said. “I am glad that we were able to find a bus company that would give us an offer. … This is not a position in which this board has placed us.”
MTN officials did not immediately respond to a reporter’s request for comment on Tuesday.
Schmidty & Sons COO Bill Forbes told the board last week that the bus company would immediately begin recruiting drivers in the district.
He said the company is employee owned and operated and has been in business for 70 years. It currently runs about 450 buses a day.
“Through Covid, we have not left a single avenue for any of our customers,” he said. “I admit there were days when I was driving a bus. One of the company’s policies is that everyone in the company has a bus license. We’re proud of that. If we didn’t have that bench, we’d be those Couldn’t handle all the employees who were out.”
The Stillwater District’s transportation-management firm has been CESO Transportation since late 2020. CESO’s Derrick Eggett told the board that Schmidty & Sons has an “immaculate service record and safety record”.
“We have investigated them, and I really believe it will be a great fit for the Stillwater school district and for families and students,” he said.
Board chair Alison Sherman said she is excited to have “a partner who can serve” despite being “devastated by the additional costs”.
“We need to fix the problem,” she said. “No one wanted to spend levy dollars on transportation, but lessons have been learned, including following experts’ recommendations when they’re given to you. Good days are before us.”
Rihley disagreed with the board’s decision, saying it was “very, very expensive” and would mean the board “wouldn’t have extra money for anything on this table.” She also said that she was worried about entering a six-year contract with Schmidt & Sons. He said that the district’s contract with the superintendent is only for three years. “I think it’s a really risky move at the moment,” she said.
Officials said after the board meeting, the school board held a work session to discuss possible changes to the district’s transportation sectors — changes that could help reduce the cost of bus contracts.
Prior to accommodating transportation areas this year due to bus challenges, the district has historically provided bus service in excess of the state-required 2-mile limit—all elementary students living more than half a mile from school and more than half a mile from school. All secondary students with just one mile from the school.
Adjusting the transportation sector for the upcoming school year “could help raise more than $1 million in new transportation vendor contracts,” said district spokeswoman Carissa Keister.
He said the board would reconsider the transport sector talks in future meetings.