in May of 2020 one month prior to firing its superintendent and a month before firing its superintendent, the Stillwater Area school board went against a staff suggestion and appointed a new bus contractor to save approximately 100,000 over the course of four years.
Two years after the sprawling district as well as its lawyers are working to reverse that decision that they claim caused delays and inconsistant service frequently changing routes and students left stranded.
“It did not make sense,” said Kim Phan an adult who used to work for the bus operator, Metropolitan Transportation Network. “The legal costs as well as the fact that the buses aren’t running families are upset. The cost is way higher than it is now, and they need to find a different supplier.”
The shortage of bus-drivers across the country that was triggered in part by prolonged school closures due to the coronavirus epidemic that forced many drivers out of retirement or into other jobs is affecting Stillwater and its new contractor particularly hard.
As the school year got underway prior to Labor Day last year, some buses were running for up to an hour. It was blamed by the district MTN for the delay, claiming in a lawsuit filed in September it was responsible for 23 percent of the routes that were unnoticed. One month later, Stillwater stopped offering rides for students living in the vicinity of two miles from the school.
MTN proprietor Tashitaa Tufaa challenged the district, claiming breach of contract as well as racism, and alleging the district attempted to oblige the company to perform things that the contract did not stipulate.
This month, the district told MTN that it would end the contract following this school year, which was two years prior to the date it expires.
MTN has responded with a request to the court block the district from looking for an additional contractor. The company’s complaint stated that the district had improperly withheld $860,000 of penalties.
“We consider it unfair and will really affect businesses,” Tufaa said of the lawsuit. “COVID obviously is an act by God. The other school districts are aware there’s been a shortage of drivers and what’s wrong in the present. I’m sure that in Stillwater this isn’t the case.”
Through two lawsuits that are separate, the first of which is predates the school district suit, Tufaa claims that rivals have conspired to copy the Stillwater routes and the routes and drivers. Anthony New Brighton route as well as drivers.
The defendants include a former MTN employee who ran the Stillwater account; the competing Lake Country Transportation; and the Stillwater district’s transportation-management firm since late 2020, CESO Transportation, which Tufaa claims has a conflict of interest and benefits from transferring routes to other companies.
The defendants have refuted the accusations. The three lawsuits are still pending.
In the latter part of 2019 six bus companies offered written proposals to transport private, public and charter school pupils who reside in the district. Staff began discussions in January with Minnesota Central School Bus Co., “the low responsible incumbent vendor” in a report that was prepared to the school board.
However, the district quickly began talks with three vendors after discovering the plan for a 7 million-dollar bus terminal at Lake Elmo could not move forward due to the fact that the developer was not connected it to the city’s water and sewer.
The process resulted in MTN taking over the district’s business in the month of May in 2020 after submitting the lowest bidand overtaking Minnesota Central by 0.3 percent which is equivalent to $26,000 per year.
In reality, Minnesota Central actually scored top marks on the bid rubric due to its 12 years of service to the district.
Jan Vanderwall, a transportation consultant who was hired by the school district analyze the bids “strongly” suggested that the board stay in with Minnesota Central for consistency’s sake. “Those are those who have been driving those routes and they are dispatchers and operators that are familiar with the workings of the school district,” he said.
But, a majority board members including Michael Ptacek, Tina Riehle, Sarah Stivland and Liz Weisberg — put that recommendation aside and gave the contract for four years to MTN. Four of them voted to dismiss the superintendent Denise Pontrelli one month later.
The board member Jennifer Pelletier, one of three “no” votes for the bus contract and said she was worried about the MTN letters of recommendation and were written by districts with smaller contracts, as well as flagged the high turnover of staff at MTN as well as unanswered phone calls even though they praised Tufaa in person. She was shocked the board could consider the introduction of the idea of a “brand-new business” on May 14only two and a half months prior to the date when the contract was scheduled to start.
“With respect to all I’m shocked that we’re not taking into account the massive impact considering the season,” she said at the meeting. “I’m looking for a urgent reason other than 0.3 percent. We’re currently in the middle of COVID in this area and to be offering these folks new routes within a brand-new District … It’s in a bind.”
Ptacek as well as Stivland lost in the November election of 2020. Weisberg quit the board in July 2021. Of the four members on the board there is only Riehle remains on the board.
Riehle stated that she was unable to discuss the pending litigation. In a post on Facebook in September, she stated her opinion that she had been “very amazed” with the service of MTN in its initial year.
“MTN was a small company however, it was able to secure all buses required to operate route,” the writer wrote. “The board was not able to receive any messages or complaints. It was a highly demanding environment for the bus companies of all sizes. The restrictions set by the Governor and concern over COVID naturally decreased the number of drivers and staff that bus companies could employ and keep.”
Late, Missing BUSES
Then, in April of 2021 the district was notified by MTN that it had violated the student transport agreement in multiple ways, as per the lawsuit filed by the school district:
- Buses would be late every day;
- Routes were combined every week;
- MTN was unable to hire enough mechanics, drivers and office personnel;
- Other extracurricular activities and sports events did not have charter services;
- The company was unable to turn on GPS for all routes.
- Other safety protocol protocols, such as COVID-19 were not put into place;
- As well as phone calls to bus services were not answered.
The school year was not without its problems. year.
It was reported that Stillwater Area High School’s cross-country team for boys was left without a home in the month of October after their bus didn’t return to take them home after the championships of their conference held in Forest Lake. MTN informed that the Pioneer Press it did send the bus, but some of the students decided to travel home with their parents.
The team’s wrestling team at the school was unable to get a bus to Faribault in the morning of December. 4. MTN confirmed that the bus was around a half hour late due to “a mistake in the scheduling.”
In the middle of December, MTN informed Stillwater it could not provide all bus routes during the three days leading up to the winter break. Families were warned of delays and cancelled routes, and were urged to create alternative plans to get their children to school.
The morning of February. 7th, the students at an all-day festival of music at St. Paul got word that they would be picked up by 5 p.m. Two hours later than they had planned due to the fact that MTN was unable to provide the earlier schedule. “We have been working this morning trying to find alternative transportation options to our children … but we have not been able to get that,” band director Dennis Lindsay sent an email sent to parents. MTN has since said that they will be able to provide one bus from 3 p.m. to collect certain students as he stated.
MTN said to The Pioneer Press it sent four buses to the festival, but two of them were there for the duration of the event since chaperones claimed they didn’t need the other two. “MTN does not know what the reason is for why they claim that they were late since two of them stayed at the festival,” the company said in an email.
district closing many of their schools.
11,000 students a day
MTN currently has the district with 83 routes and transports around 11,000 students every school day. It charges the district more than $9 million per annually for the services it provides.
Phan was a former driver the Minnesota Central bus service. Minnesota Central, joined MTN in 2020, when MTN took over the Stillwater contract. She resigned in August.
She claimed that MTN wasn’t prepared to serve a community “as vast and sprawled in size as the one of Stillwater’s.”
Minnesota Central, an affiliate of North America Central School Bus, “could bring drivers in from all over the nation in the event that we were short of drivers,” she said. “They could fly them up to the area on a Saturday, instruct them on these routes on Sundays, and then they’d take the road on Monday. They would put them in a hotel and pay them a per-diem and pay them for 40 hours per week, even though they only worked for 25 hours.”
Phan claimed she had raised a variety of issues regarding her concerns with Tufaa and her supervisor. She even said that her bus for children was cancelled.
“I could not possibly transport other kids to school and allow my children to be unruly,” she said. “It was almost an act of humour when they would be heard over an (high-school) intercom during the daytime to announce how many buses were cancelled.”
Why do we sue?
Tufaa’s lawyer, Damon Ward, questions the reason Stillwater filed a lawsuit against MTN “when all of the country is facing shortages of drivers.”
Other districts have recognized the need as well and “supporting efforts to ensure that children go back to their schools,” Ward said.
Minneapolis Public Schools has contracted with MTN for more than 10 years for routes that run between 30 and 60 every year, according to Frank Zeman, the district’s director of transportation services.
“We have a great relationship that we work with,” he said of Tufaa. “He’s ever been an honest and straight man with me. He cares. He’s honest. He’s a great partner to work with as He will always tell what’s true.”
MTN’s customer support is what sets it apart according to Jennifer Geraghty, principal at Athlos Leadership Academy, a charter school located in Brooklyn Park. MTN has been under Athlos as its Athlos agreement since the year 2012 and has been able to transport hundreds of students each day.
“I absolutely would not do business with any other company,” Geraghty said. “Their support for customers is exceptional. If I have a problem regarding transportation, and I reach out to him, he’s directly engaged in solving the issue. Think about the amount there is to do however, if he wants to speak to me, he will drive here and speaks to me. He’d like to talk with me in person.”
“VERY IMPORTANT” JOB
Tufaa 55-year-old Tufaa was raised on the farm of Ethiopia and was a teacher in high school social studies prior to escaping for in the United States in 1992 after the country’s government fell.
Despite his university education as well as teaching experiences, he was able get only part-time work. With a desire to become a diplomat and an master’s degree in international and political science relations at the University of Minnesota in 1996 However, it was when he discovered the joy of driving while working at Metro Mobility.
He began writing letters to the school district’s transportation directors, asking for the signing of driving contracts.
“So lots of people laughed at me and laughed at me,” Tufaa told me, but Osseo Area Public Schools gave the student the chance.
He founded MTN in 2003, using his taxicab as well as his wife’s minivan.
The year 2012 saw MTN was moved to its new $3.5 million facility, which covers 25,000 square feet in Fridley.
Today, the company employs more than 300 employees as well as the company has 420 buses for school. It has agreements with the Minneapolis, Mounds View, White Bear Lake, St. Anthony-New Brighton, Edina, Richfield, Osseo and Stillwater districts. They transport around 25,000 kids each day.
Tufaa along with his partner, Nediyo Sado, have five children ranging between 13 and 26. The son of the couple, Gamadii Tufaa is 18 years old. He is severely autistic and not able to speak as are others of the children who travel on the routes MTN provides.
“I live my life,” he said. “That has made me realize their needs extremely, exceptionally well. I don’t believe there’s any better person to take them to their destination or help them understand their needs better.”
Tufaa said that he departs his Orono home dressed in a suit and tie around 4 in the morning each day to take routes to check buses, and check on the schools that he works for.
“The children will often inquire, “Why do you need to wear tie on? Do you need tie your tie to take the bus?'” he asked. “I say to them “Yes, I must tie up because you’re extremely important. What I do when I drive the bus — is extremely significant.”