Shelton Alderman joins call to give transportation savings to schools

SHELTON — Alderman David Gidwani has joined some Board of Education members in calling for savings in student transportation costs to be used for education needs.

Gidwani made his plea to Mayor Mark Lauretti Thursday at the aldermen meeting. Lauretti said the city had saved $847,000 in student transportation costs in the 2019-20 fiscal year, in part because school went remote in March. Savings are anticipated during the 2020-21 school year since in-person learning was suspended on Nov. 11.

In-person learning will begin again on Monday.

“The Shelton taxpayers own the buses, not the mayor,” Gidwani said during the meeting. “Any extra money left over should automatically go to the Board of Ed. They can use it for more teachers, more technology. They need this.”

The city-run Shelton Student Transportation Service handles the district’s student transportation as part of a court-negotiated settlement. The deal calls for the Board of Education to pay the city $3.15 million annually to be its bus operator.

According to the agreement, if transportation costs are more than $3.15 million, the city covers the extra amount. Conversely, if costs are less than $3.15 million, the extra money stays with the city.

Gidwani’s comments came after Lauretti, in reviewing the audit report, talked about the savings realized in the 2019-20 fiscal year, with more savings expected this year.

Lauretti said he had no plans to move any excess student transportation funds to the Board of Education.

“Why would we give more money (to the Board of Ed)? They are giving money back to us,” said Lauretti, referring to the BOE underspending its 2020-21 budget by some $500,000, with that money going into the city’s general fund.

Board of Education members Amanda Kilmartin and Diana Meyer began calling last month for the cost savings from the reduction in student transportation to be shifted to the education budget.

Shelton Student Transportation Services head Ken Nappi said while some drivers have been working since bus runs are still required for private and specialty schools, some of the regular drivers have been laid off .

"It is a shame that school bus drivers were laid off before the holidays during a difficult time,” Meyer said. “As of yet, the city has given the BOE no concessions in making full payment for bus services.”

Meyer said this also occurred in the spring when the schools switched to remote learning.

“I’m not sure where the money coming from the BOE was used by the city in the spring nor where they plan to use it now if it is not being used to pay drivers or buses that did not run,” Meyer added. “This is why it is important for the Board of A and T to meet in order to understand how funds are being spent within the city."

While acknowledging the pandemic, which shuttered school buildings from mid-March to the end of the past school year, added to the savings, Lauretti said the city would have saved money either way.

“Some of these same board members were there when the board overspent its budget by $3 million ... some even supported that,” Lauretti said.

The extra money goes into a general fund that Lauretti said the Board of Education reduced to zero by its expenses a few years ago. The city filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education over the expenses; that case is still pending.

“I always believed ... starting seven years ago ... that if we buy the buses and take over the transportation operation that we would see a significant savings. We’re proving that right now,” Lauretti added.

Kilmartin asked for the school board to receive any bus run cost savings and information about how the extra money could be used.

She also suggested that the central office review the negotiated settlement and what it specifically says about service.

Kilmartin asked if there could be “recoverable” money if buses did not showing up or drivers not being available.

According to the budget dated Nov. 24 on the Shelton website, the city has spent $551,261 of the $3.15 million charged to the Board of Education for bus service.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com