Durham School Services, the city’s former bus operator, poaching drivers only days before the start of school played a key role in the district’s decision to delay the opening of school, according to Board of Aldermen President John Anglace, Jr.

Shelton schools were to open Tuesday, Sept. 3, but school Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet announced Friday, Aug. 30, the opening was on hold, tentatively set for Wednesday, Sept. 4, since he was unable to confirm that the city had enough drivers or if those drivers in hand had all been certified by state Department of Motor Vehicle officials.

Mayor Mark Lauretti said the the now-city-run operation, Shelton Student Transportation Service, was only three drivers short when Clouet announced his decision. Lauretti said he was confident that the city would have the necessary drivers, even if he needed to subcontract for those drivers just to get school open on time.

The delay resulted in criticism from some for the city’s handling of the bus situation, while some residents have scheduled a protest at City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 3, from 8:30 to 9 a.m.

“The city’s preparations to run the bus service and freeze BOE bus costs over the next three years was proceeding on schedule as was evident by the on-time and smooth running summer school program,” said Anglace. “There was nothing but praise for the operation until last week, when the former bus operator (Durham School Services) set our program back by hiring some eight to 10 Shelton bus drivers. With a state and national bus driver shortage, you can imagine the impact of this incident.”

The city’s bus operation came under scrutiny two weeks ago after a Facebook post surfaced charging that those who drove buses for the city’s summer school program had neither been drug tested nor background checked prior to beginning their employment with Shelton Student Transportation Service. Within days of the accusation, Clouet said he confirmed what was stated in that post was accurate.

This led to Clouet and state Department of Motor Vehicles officials to converge on the city bus garage to verify all drivers for the coming school year. While not all bus drivers’ records were verified, Clouet said enough were complete so Shelton students could be driven to Emmett O’Brien Technical High School, Platt Technical High School, Trumbull Vo-Ag and Cooperative Educational Services (CES) beginning Thursday, Aug. 29.

Anglace said driver records, which were only recently released to the city, have now been received from the Durham and drug tests and background checks verified.

“The city clearly understands its service provider obligation to the (Board of Education) and is cooperating fully,” said Anglace. “Most people may not remember, but, last year, the day before school was to start, a news conference was held to announce an unexpected delay in the start of school. Fortunately, this was averted with the cooperation of city personnel.

“My point in bringing this up is to show that even experienced bus companies encounter beyond their control delays with initial bus program start ups,” said Anglace. “The city administration has assured me that they are doing all in their power to minimize any inconvenience and provide for the safety of the students.”

It was July 2018 when the Board of Aldermen filed suit against the Board of Education for allegedly violating the city charter while negotiating, and ultimately signing a contract with Durham School Services.

Shelton’s contract with Durham, in 2018, came to pass when the city allegedly failed to give Board of Education members a written proposal for transportation. In order to meet state statutes, the school board decided to secure transportation services from Durham.

Ultimately, the city and Board of Education entered into a court settlement in which the city agreed to assume control of student transportation at an annual cost of $3.15 million, which would allow for significant savings long term, according to Lauretti.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com