Northampton Press

Monday, March 18, 2019

District, bus company to review policies

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Local News

First Student contract expires June 30; firm submits bid to continue services

The Northampton Area School District administration will review policies with its bus transportation service provider First Student, following a recent incident in which one of the company’s bus drivers allegedly abandoned students.

“We’re going to work with First Student to review current practices and procedures that are in place,” NASD Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Kovalchik said after the March 11 board of education meeting.

Kovalchik said that reviewing transportation protocol is the third step, and the latest step, in a three-step approach to dealing with the March 1 incident, when a First Student bus driver allegedly abandoned 26 NASD secondary students after parking the bus she had been driving in the lot of a Sunoco, 109 W. Main St., Bath, exiting the bus, handing the keys to a Sunoco employee and walking away, according to a state police report.

According to Trooper Kenneth Wong, of the Pennsylvania State Police Troop M, Bethlehem, Lori Ann Mankos, 44, an employee of First Student, the transportation company that buses NASD students, was charged with 26 counts of endangering the welfare of children, one for each of the juvenile students aboard the bus, as well as careless driving, reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance.

Mankos was apprehended at her Walnutport residence, taken into custody, arraigned before Magisterial District Judge John Capobianco, Nazareth, and sent to Northampton County Prison in lieu of $100,000 bail.

The students, in grades 6 through 12, were picked up by parents or taken home in another bus provided by the bus company.

The first step, Kovalchik said, was to make sure the students were safe.

“Our No. 1 concern at all times is for the safety of our students,” Kovalchik said.

The second step, according to Kovalchik, was counseling for not only the 26 students allegedly abandoned, but for all of the approximately 50 students who were on the bus prior to it being abandoned in Bath. Kovalchik said he was on the phone with parents March 1 and 4.

“[March 5], when the students were back in school, with the parents’ permission, we had guidance counselors speak to the students individually,” Kovalchik said.

NASD schools were closed for classes March 4 because of a snowstorm.

“And the guidance counselors’ doors are still open for counseling if so desired,” Kovalchik added.

In addition to himself, Kovalchik said NASD Director of Transportation Brian Leskowich; NASD Assistant Superintendent Robert J. Steckel Jr.; Northampton Area High School Principal Luke Shafnisky; and Northampton Area Middle School Principal Patrice Turner coordinated the district’s assistance to students and parents.

“We tried to be proactive and communicate with the parents once we found out about the incident,” Kovalchik said.

The First Student contract to provide bus transportation expires June 30. NASD put out requests for proposals in December 2018. First Student was one of three bus companies to present proposals.

Kovalchik said the school board will discuss the proposals in executive session, select a successful bidder and place a vote on that bidder on a school board meeting agenda prior to June 30.

“There are provisions in the First Student contract that require First Student to employ qualified, trained drivers,” Atty. C. Steven Miller, NASD solicitor, said after the March 11 meeting.

Miller was asked if there was any exposure to the school district with respect to the bus incident.

“There shouldn’t be any because [NASD is] not operating or (doesn’t) own the bus service,” Miller said.

“If some claim would be filed against the school district, First Student provides indemnification for the school district,” he added. “If the school district incurs any costs or liabilities, First Student would be required to reimburse the school district for those expenses.”

Regarding First Student, Kovalchik said, “Over the years, they have provided the district with quality service.”

The March 1 school bus incident was not discussed by the NASD administration and school board during the March 11 meeting.

The school board met, per usual, in executive session, before the meeting, for “personnel and legal issues,” Kovalchik announced at the start of the school board meeting.

It could not be determined if the school bus incident was discussed during executive session.

Approximately 3,000 NASD students are transported by buses in the approximate 98-square-mile school district.

The NASD Board of Education next meets 6:30 p.m. March 25 in the administration building, 2014 Laubach Ave., Northampton.