For the first time in more than a decade, Palo Alto is preparing to hire a new company to manage its ranks of school crossing guards -- and not everyone is thrilled about the change.
Dozens of parents attended the Monday night City Council meeting to urge the council not to make a switch from the present company, All City Management Services, which has been managing the city's crossing-guard program since the Police Department privatized the service in 1999. This year, the city went out to bid on the contract, as it has in the past, and received responses from eight companies, four of which had lower costs than the incumbent.
The council voted unanimously to support a staff recommendation and award a contract to American Guard Services, the company with the lowest bid. It reached this decision despite oral and written arguments from dozens of parents who claimed the transition would threaten the safety of their children.
Many speakers who opposed the change pointed to Michael Saterfield, a crossing guard who mans the intersection near Terman Middle School. One parent after another praised Saterfield for his ability to command the attention of students and drivers and for keeping the busy stretch of Arastradero Road safe. Stacey Ashlund, whose daughter goes to fourth grade at Juana Briones Elementary School, was among them.
"I let her cross Arastradero by herself for only one reason -- Michael is his name," Ashland told the council. "I see no rebellion at that intersection. I see happy compliance. What I wouldn't give for that in my household?"
American Guard Services offered jobs to current crossing guards, but only under lower wages. Saterfield said the proposed rate was far below the existing one. While the current management company offered in its bid to pay crossing guards $14.39 per hour in the first year and $14.75 in each of the following two years, American Guard proposed a rate of $13.25 an hour in the first two years and $13.51 in the third year.
Saterfield also addressed the council during the public comment period and urged council members to renew All City's contract.
"I think that safety is the issue here and we provided that safety and we will continue to provide that safety," Saterfield told the council. "I don't think it's a matter of dollars and cents when it comes to safety of children."
Despite this chorus of opposition, the council opted to accept staff recommendation and award the contract to the lower bidder. Police Lt. Ron Watson told the council that American Guard Service appears well qualified to handle the assignment, which includes commandeering 29 school-area crosswalks. Staff members also reached out to other cities that have worked with this company and were assured that American Guard's operations were smooth.
Under the contract the council approved Monday night, American Guard will receive about $290,000 per year, 8.6 percent less than All City Management would have received under its bid.
Councilmen Larry Klein and Greg Scharff both argued that the city should honor its commitment to an open bidding process for government contracts.
"Having a process that says we'll go to the lowest responsible bidder has served us well," Klein said.
"There's been a lot of talk tonight about Michael's great services and I'm delighted to hear about that," he added. "But that can't possibly be a way for a government agency to make policy."
Others agreed that the city should follow its usual procedures and award the contract to the lowest responsible bidder. City Manager James Keene said the city owes it to its citizens to get the best value. Scharff said no company in their right mind would be willing to bid against an incumbent company knowing that the council could reject its bid "on a whim."
"If we go with a non-lowest responsible bidder, we design a process that forces the current company to win the bid," Scharff said.
Some council members, including Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh, voiced concerns about the staff proposal to make the switch on Dec. 1, a timeline that Yeh said doesn't provide adequate time for a smooth transition. The council agreed to give staff leeway about extending the timeline as needed, provided the process doesn't stretch beyond Feb. 1.
Council members also urged some of the crossing guards in attendance, including Saterfield, to stick around, even if it means lower wages.
"We want to retain the workers and especially the superstar workers," Mayor Sid Espinosa said. "I heard tonight and previously that current workers, most if not all, will be offered roles with the new company and we hope they take it because we appreciate your service and we know you work hard for the citizens and for our youth -- ensuring our safety."