Residents protest city’s bus ‘mismanagement’

Photo of Brian Gioiele

Angela Pellegrino-Grant had had enough, in her words, after learning at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, that her children would not be going to school Tuesday, Sept. 3, because of a lack of bus drivers.

Pellegrino-Grant then took to social media, calling on anyone reading to join in her protest of what she calls the city’s mismanagement of the bus operation. As a result, dozens of residents converged on City Hall Tuesday morning to voice their frustration with the postponement of the first day of school.

"It’s Tuesday, and we still don’t know if we’ll have school Wednesday, or how students will get to school if there is school Wednesday,” Pellegrino-Grant said to those in attendance, her three school-age children by her side. “We don’t know how many drivers short we are, and we don’t know if all buses are certified as ready.

“We’ve heard from (Mayor Mark Lauretti), ‘This is not our fault,’” Pellegino-Grant said. “We’re here today to say to the mayor to take responsibility for the project you went to court to get. To tell him to talk to the parents of this town, your constituents, who live here and pay taxes and trust you to provide a safe environment for their kids. To tell him that none of this OK.

“‘We've got this?’ You clearly don’t. It is time you start telling us what your plans are because your trust has run out,” she added.

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.

Lauretti said 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.

“We are here because we need to shed light on the ridiculous handling of this Shelton-run bus company,” said Ursa Mooney, standing with her daughter, Vela, who was to start kindergarten at Mohegan School Tuesday, Sept. 3. “She deserves better as do all children affected by this folly.”

Mooney said the city should have been more transparent about the issues throughout the process, so working parents would not have been left scrambling to find day care options less than one business day before the scheduled start of school.

“I really wanted to go back to school. I was mad,” said Chase Ostertag, an incoming sixth grader, after learning on Friday about the delayed school opening.

“I’ve had enough,” said Dila Ostertag, who attended the protest with both her daughters. “I am just disappointed with the Shelton government. It’s time we had a change. We need people who want to work together, to do the right thing for their constituents, not just themselves. I hope this protest will start making people more aware of what is happening.”

Board of Aldermen President John Anglace Jr. said that the city’s preparations to run the bus service and freeze Board of Education bus costs over the next three years were “proceeding on schedule as was evident by the on-time and smooth-running summer school program.

“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,” Anglace said this past weekend. “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 undergone 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, when those schools opened.

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,” Anglace said. “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.