Board of Ed hires new bus company for next school year

Shelton students will have a new bus company picking them up and driving them home when the next school year begins.

That’s because the Board of Education (BOE) voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve a five-year contract with Landmark Student Transportation.

Landmark will replace the current bus company, First Student, at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Landmark will be using new city-supplied buses that are fueled by propane.

The new contract is different from others because the bus company will not supply the buses, and the city was hoping to save about $1 million a year in the contract by providing the buses.

However, the savings will now be more in the $400,000 to $500,000 range, which will add to the overall gap in what the BOE has requested in its fiscal year 2013-14 budget and what Mayor Mark Lauretti has proposed be spent on education.

Landmark was one of three finalists for what is called a “service contract” because it will oversee student transportation but not supply the buses. The other two finalists were First Student and People to Places.

‘A very arduous process’

BOE member Arlene Liscinsky made the motion to approve the contract with Landmark. Liscinsky said the company was the low bidder and had been recommended by School Supt. Freeman Burr.

Liscinsky said “a very arduous process” was followed to select a new bus company, with BOE staff doing a lot of work to compare proposals by the vendors.

BOE Chairman Mark Holden said Landmark presented a strong transition plan, emphasized  safety issues, and would have a strong staff. “Landmark did a tremendous job making me feel comfortable,” he said.

“They interviewed very well,” Holden said. “They had good answers to our questions.”

Union contract and transition plan

School Supt. Freeman Burr said the bidders provided responses to 12 criteria.

Burr said an important requirement was that the selected bus company be willing to enter into an agreement with the bus driver union. He said it was important that the district keep the current drivers because they have “done a good job.”

Another important aspect was how a company would handle the switch-over from the current bus transportation company. “The transition plan was extremely important to us,” Burr said.

Holden agreed. “We’re expecting it should be a rather painless start of the year. We may even be able to offer a level of service we’re not accustomed to,” Holden said.

There had been issues with bus transportation at the start of the school year for a few years in Shelton, although things went more smoothly at the beginning the current school year, according to education officials.

A plea from First Student official

The BOE vote came after Cheryl Krauchick, manager of First Student operations in Shelton, urged the BOE to stay with First Student.

“It is my wish that you stay with First Student,” Krauchick said.

She said the company has built strong relationships with administrators at schools, providing additional buses when needed, accommodating class trips as schedules allowed, and handling special education needs.

Krauchick said she worried changing companies, combined with the introduction of new buses, could lead to problems. She noted a new vendor would only have eight weeks to prepare for the start of the school year once on the job.

“Upheaval comes very easily...My concern is upheaval will come again,” Krauchick said.

Two bus drivers involved with the union also spoke at the meeting, saying First Student had worked well with them and done an especially good job during bad weather situations.

Financing the buses

One reason the service contract savings won’t be as substantial as hoped is because providing the buses produces added profit for vendors. Their other costs remain the same whether they supply the buses or not.

Bus companies usually finance their bus purchases over extended periods, generally from seven to 11 years. The city will pay off the propane-powered buses it is purchasing in five years (those payments are built in the savings calculations), so costs for the city will drop significantly beginning in year six, producing the more significant savings.

Holden said Lauretti had “over-estimated” the savings that could be found in hiring a vendor to provide only transportation services and not the buses. “That’s created a gap,” he said.

Lauretti has said it is up to the BOE to negotiate a transportation service contract that will result in the projected savings. If $1 million in savings can’t be found, “they haven’t done a good job negotiating,” he said during an earlier interview.