Shelton officials say recruiting push has school transit on a roll

SHELTON — A recent recruitment push is bearing fruit for the city’s bus company, and the results have been fewer missed routes than in years past, according to Shelton Student Transportation Services heads. 

Fran Freer, Mayor Mark Lauretti’s administrative assistant, said the city’s bus company is like most nationwide — searching for more drivers and battling absentee issues. But Freer said the city’s ability to retain its present staff has kept missed routes down to an average of one to two a day. 

“We’ve had success with recruiting,” said Freer about the city’s efforts, including placing numerous signs seeking bus drivers throughout the city. “Those signs have helped. We’ve had a large response from people who desire to be bus drivers. They are just not coming in ‘ready to drive,’ currently lacking proper credentials.” 

Shelton Student Transportation Services has 60 propane-powered buses and makes 52 daily runs to transport the city’s pre-school, elementary, intermediate and high school students. Additionally, the city-run service provides transportation to student athletes for all daily and weekend, away sporting team activities, as requested by the Athletic Department. 

Superintendent Ken Saranich, at the direction of the Board of Education from two years ago, maintains detailed records on any missed runs or complaints against the bus company. 

“I am happy to say that the service has much improved compared to years past,” Saranich said. “Is it perfect? No. But show me a district that isn’t suffering from the drivers’ shortage, which is happening nationwide.” 

Saranich said he believes the district using the city run bus company is ideal because with it comes the ability to use money that would have been spent on an independent company on educational needs. 

Overall, the bus company has 55 bus drivers on staff, with 24 bus monitors. Of those, five drivers and eight monitors have been hired during the present school year. There are also 10 drivers who were recruited, and their status is pending screening and training. 

“The biggest issue now is we’ve tapped the market of pre-qualified drivers,” Freer said. “We are now getting interest from people who have to be trained.” 

Just this week, the company hired three new monitors, and the goal is to increase the number of drivers. A surplus of drivers is ideal, according to Freer, to cover those routes missed when drivers are out sick or need time off for personal reasons. 

To help accomplish these goals the city hired a new bus company director, Frank Scalzo, who brings years of experience with school buses, dating all the way back to his own elementary school years. 

Scalzo, a lifelong Newtown resident, spent his early days riding along with his mother, an owner-operator bus driver. He recalls spending summers waxing the roof of the bus and even putting his mechanical skills to the test helping her keep the bus running. 

“My goals are to make sure this fleet is up to date and running smoothly, and to increase staffing,” Scalzo said. “We need more drivers, definitely. We have a good amount now, but you can always use more. We want to have enough where we do not have to make those calls to the superintendent in the morning.” 

Scalzo said he will also regularly monitor the efficiency of the routes. 

Freer said Scalzo would bring management stability to the department.

“Frank brings experience with the State of Connecticut DMV and private bus companies, and knows how to run a fleet," she said. "His management style is relatable to the drivers. He understands the challenges.” 

Scalzo was a Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles inspector with the commercial vehicle safety division for 20 years, working with the bus and truck units, in addition to hazardous material transport. He was in enforcement for 15 years before retiring. 

From there, he joined the state DOT special needs division of transportation and was a driver for several companies before being hired at St. Vincent’s Special Needs as shuttle coordinator and transportation specialist. 

This is the city’s latest move to improve the bus company, which  has been inundated with complaints about poor service and improperly certified drivers when the city took it over.

In the years since, the company has upgraded its technology and made routes more efficient, removing hundreds of names no longer in the system to help condense and shorten runs, according to transit officials. 

Freer said she believes Scalzo’s management style will also help to maintain the present staffers. She noted that the bus company’s strength has been its ability to retain its drivers, which other companies are faced with losing drivers to rival companies. 

“The majority of our drivers are long term. We have a stable workforce, and these drivers are reaching out to other drivers they know and recruiting them," she said crediting competitive wages and the department's management for worker retention.

“I think this is a record that is tough to beat in the area, being able to keep our people, with minimal turnover," she said.