Palmer Bus Service will be the name attached to school buses carrying Princeton Public School students this fall rather than the current Minnesota Central Bus.
Next school year will be the fourth time the district has changed bus companies. The district for many years had the local Odegard Bus Service as its provider, until changing in the late 1990s, according to Breitkreutz. That’s when the district went with Laidlaw to haul the students. That lasted four years before the district went with Peterson Bus Co., which lasted for eight years before selecting Minnesota Central.
Superintendent Rick Lahn and Director of Business Services Carol Breitkreutz referred to Minnesota Central’s service overall in the past three years as “great,” when they spoke to the school board Tuesday of last week. The discussion was during the board’s business of making the change to Palmer Bus Service.
Aside from problems with management and bus malfunctions in Minnesota Central’s first year here three years ago, Princeton school administrators have not had a problem with Minnesota Central. Minnesota Central brought in manager Chrysann Carriveau to improve communications and management and the company also remedied the problems of some buses stalling.
The catalyst for going out for bids and ending up recommending a change in bus companies turned out to be cost, Lahn explained to the board.
As a result of taking bids, the district received six of them, and Palmer Bus Service, based in North Mankato, had the low bid (for a two-year contract) of $3.76 million. Lahn and Breitkreutz said they made calls to some of the districts where Palmer Bus Service has been working and got good reviews on Palmer.
Minnesota Central actually had one year left in its second two-year contract with Princeton. But Minnesota Central informed the district in March this year that it could no longer afford to do the transportation service for Princeton at the contract’s terms, according to Lahn. If Minnesota Central had agreed to finish out the two-year contract that originally went through this coming school year, it would have been for $3.43 million. Minnesota Central officials gave a quote of $3.95 million for a new two-year contract in March and then turned in a bid of $4.10 million this month.
Lahn said that when the district told Minnesota Central early this spring that it couldn’t accept the amount of money that Minnesota Central said it had to have to continue the service, an official with the company suggested the district “try the market.”
When the district took bids, Palmer turned up the winner, with the school board Tuesday last week approving it for a two-year contract starting this fall. Minnesota Central has agreed to honor its contract to provide summer bus transportation, Lahn said.
unhappiness over choice
Carriveau, manager of the Minnesota Central School Bus operation here, read a written response at the May 8 school board meeting regarding the district’s plan to not stay with Minnesota Central.
She first expressed appreciation for having served the district the past three years and that she felt Minnesota Central gave “110 percent on service and thousands of dollars in free donated buses,” along with providing quality staff and drivers, and having a “superb safety record.”
She cited Minnesota Central’s 99.7 percent safety rating during its time at Princeton. Carriveau then charged that “after our failure to negotiate a contractual renewal, your administration secretly held from us (a chance) to be a part of the bid selection.”
Carriveau claimed that vendors were solicited and were provided bid packets and that “we weren’t allowed to attend the question and answering process for a new vendor.
Both Superintendent Lahn and Business Director Breitkreutz refuted Carriveau’s claim last week about Carriveau’s statements on the bidding form.
“Our company understands cost factors in selecting a vendor and holds no ill will towards Palmer Bus.”
Carriveau continued: “I don’t believe Mr. (Tom) Watson, your transportation consultant, has been diligent in providing enough information that allowed you to select the best vendor for the district…”
The school board will have to act later to formally close the deal with Palmer. Lahn noted how the district is saving $337,726 by going with Palmer in a two-year contract versus Minnesota Central for the same period.
Palmer owner speaks
Palmer Bus Service owner Floyd Palmer and the company’s chief operating officer Chris Champlin addressed the school board. Palmer told how he and wife Lois started the company in St. Clair with five buses in 1974, and have since expanded to 600 buses and are operating in 19 school locations, all in outstate Minnesota.
He called the company a “very basic” one and “not a big corporation.” Its operators “understand who we work for,” and the company’s mission is to “provide good service to you,” Palmer said.
Palmer added that he wants the local bus manager he selects to be someone who will “fit in the community and understand the process and how we run our company.”
Champlin said the company wants to make the transition from Minnesota Central to Palmer “seamless” and hire the current bus drivers. “Without the school bus drivers, we have nothing.” Palmer has been operating for 20-30 years in many districts, and even longer in St. Clair, Champlin noted.
Floyd Palmer, in a telephone call the next day, said that he had met with Princeton bus drivers the night before and set up a meeting with them for later this month.
Palmer had told the school board that it would find a base for its bus operation somewhere if it couldn’t get the present bus barn that is now being leased to Minnesota Central. Carriveau told the board the lease goes for another year. Palmer says he is a friend of one of the owners of the bus barn property, indicting that may be in his favor for working something out.