ELIZABETH, Pa. (KDKA) — Students in the Elizabeth Forward School District will get two extra days of summer vacation.
Instead of starting school this Thursday, school solicitor John Rushford says, “School will start Monday, Aug. 26.”
That’s part of a short-term deal that was hammered out behind closed doors with Judge Christine Ward between the school district and Pennsylvania Coach Lines, which has been providing bus service to the district under an agreement the bus company says was not renewed for this coming year.
“Is this a good deal?” KDKA money editor Jon Delano asked Rushford.
“We’re happy to get our kids back to school,” he said.
“I know parents and families are getting ready. I know my own family is to get back to school, so we’re happy about that.”
In a bit of shuttle diplomacy, the judge met individually with the parties at least three times to hammer out a consent order that requires the bus company to provide bus service for the next three weeks while the parties negotiate a new contract beyond that date.
WATCH: KDKA’s Jon Delano reports live
“We’re happy this happened,” said David Sunstein, who owns Pennsylvania Coach Lines.
“We’re working towards providing transportation for students on a three-week basis, and we’re going to try to negotiate a contract, a contract that replaces the contract that expired June 30.”
Both Sunstein and Rushford said logistics prevented them from sticking to the Thursday school start date.
“The logistics of getting 2,400 kids to school takes a little bit of time,” said Sunstein.
“We have to get the routes together, get drivers arranged, get the information out to the parents. It takes time.”
And while the court order guarantees at least three weeks of school for Elizabeth Forward students, what happens after that depends on the negotiations.
“We’ll see what we can do in terms of reaching a negotiation with Pa. Coach Lines,” said Rushford.
WATCH: Jon Delano reports from outside the courtroom
So what’s the big dispute between the bus company and Elizabeth Forward?
Sources tell KDKA that it has to do with busing children, including children with special needs, beyond the school district’s borders.
Pennsylvania law requires public school districts that bus to bus children up to ten miles outside their borders to parochial, private and other schools. That busing can be costly and challenging.
“We will be providing transportation to and from school,” insists Rushford.
Delano: For everyone?
Rushford: For everyone. Correct.
Beyond the bus service, sources also tell KDKA that there are personality differences between the bus company owner Sunstein, who has accused new superintendent Todd Keruskin of being “untruthful” and negotiating in bad faith, assertions Keruskin denies.\
WATCH: Jon Delano’s full story
Judge Ward’s consent order specifically limits contact over bus operations to two other district employees.
Delano: Will we back here [in court] in three weeks?
Rushford: I hope not, but obviously we will see what we can do in terms of reaching an accommodation with Pa. Coach Lines.
Now again, this deal is temporary.
It expires on Sept. 15.
The district and the bus company are expected to start negotiations right away on a new contract.
And to keep things moving, Judge Ward wants to see both parties in her courtroom on Sept. 3, the day after Labor Day.
Pennsylvania Coach Lines issued a statement, saying in part:
We will gladly uphold the opportunity to provide services to the families of Elizabeth Forward School District, to the fullest extent of our fleet and driver capacity during this three-week period. We will work in all good faith toward a contract signed by both parties to replace the one which expired on June 30, 2019, meeting the requirements of the Pennsylvania School Code and safeguarding taxpayer money by minimizing the potential for future disputes.