Shelton school board members worry continuing bus route problems leave them legally liable

Photo of Brian Gioiele
A City of Shelton school bus at Sunnyside Elementary School, in Shelton, Conn. Oct. 13, 2020.

A City of Shelton school bus at Sunnyside Elementary School, in Shelton, Conn. Oct. 13, 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — With the city bus company often missing runs, some school board members are insisting that they hire outside legal counsel to protect the district from future lawsuits.

“How much longer can we tolerate this?” board member Patti Moonan asked during a recent school board committee meeting. “We have an obligation to get these kids to school … they deserve a free education.”

“All year long there have been major issues,” board member Diana Meyer said.

Students returned from spring break Monday. That day alone, one bus missed both morning and afternoon runs and three others missed afternoon runs. One bus missed both runs and two others missed afternoon runs Tuesday.

The city runs buses for Shelton schools. Critics of the arrangement have complained that the bus company is not doing its job getting children to school.

School administration compiled data on bus runs and presented it this past week during the Board of Education ad hoc building, grounds and transportation committee.

Meyer said the pandemic has been cited as the reason why the bus runs have been missed, since many drivers have been out with COVID-19 or quarantined. But she pointed out that the city’s vaccine clinics — at which drivers were vaccinated as well — were two weeks ago. And yet the missed runs persist.

Administration data presented at the meeting stated that, on Monday, the afternoon runs for students at Mohegan, Sunnyside, Perry Hill Elizabeth Shelton and Shelton High schools were affected. Parents were asked to pick up their children if the bus was not able to run.

Three sports teams — varsity and freshman baseball and girls’ tennis — also had to postpone scheduled events because they had no transportation. Athletic Director John Niski said the games are being rescheduled.

On Tuesday, data stated that students from Mohegan, Long Hill, Shelton Intermediate, Elizabeth Shelton, Perry Hill and Shelton High schools were affected.

“Monday and Tuesday were a nightmare,” Meyer said. “We’ve been very patient on this … I don’t want to sue anyone. We need to look at our legal options … we need to protect ourselves. I do not want to get sued because the students are not getting their free public education.”

Board member and committee chair John Fitzgerald said the bus company informed him that one driver was quarantined because of COVID-19, five others were on COVID-19-related absences and four others are out on unspecified medical leave.

Fitzgerald said the bus company works to use subcontractors to fill spots, but said that Shelton faces competition from numerous other districts for those same subcontractors.

“This is not isolated to Shelton,” Shelton Student Transportation Service Director Ken Nappi said. “Other districts are going through this as well. We have not had to close schools because of a shortage of bus drivers like other districts have been forced to do.”

Nappi said he and his staff are in touch with Fitzgerald daily with bus run updates. He added that his people “do everything possible to make sure all students receive transportation to and from school.”

Fitzgerald said that there are eight new applicants for bus driver jobs but they need training and state-mandated testing before being ready to drive.

Overall, Shelton Student Transportation Service has 62 drivers and 20 monitors on staff, he said.

Board member Amanda Kilmartin said the board must consider hiring outside counsel because its attorneys also represent the city and the city-owned bus company.

She said the board needs to know what its options are against a suit if the bus company continues to miss runs once the distance learning option is gone next month. Superintendent Ken Saranich said his hope is that after May 3, the only students who receive distance learning are those students whose family has requested their child remain a distance learner.

Also, she said, outside counsel could look at the bus contract between the city and the Board of Education to see if there are remedies or actions the board could take if Shelton Student Transportation fails to meet its obligations.

“If we can’t figure out a solution, we are on the hook … we are legally liable to get the students to school,” Kilmartin said. “We need solid legal counsel to protect ourselves.”