Shelton school board tracking complaints about city-run bus company

City of Shelton school buses parked in Shelton, Conn. June 7, 2018.

City of Shelton school buses parked in Shelton, Conn. June 7, 2018.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media fil ephoto

SHELTON — The Board of Education is looking into complaints about the city-run bus company’s ability to get some students to and from school, tasking the administration to further investigate.

Board Chair Kathy Yolish, at the board’s regular meeting Wednesday, stated that the administration will now be tracking data on bus incidents, including missed pickups, non-performance and any other reported infractions against Shelton Student Transportation Services.

“Parents are extremely frustrated with the unreliability of the buses these days,” board member Amanda Kilmartin told Hearst Connecticut Media about the increased number of last-minute bus run cancellations this past month. “They aren’t shy about it on social media either.”

“The board has been aware of the problems with our transportation services and takes this matter seriously,” Yolish said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Mayor Mark Lauretti, who spearheaded the city taking over the student transportation nearly three years ago, told Hearst Connecticut Media that “this notion that the bus situation is a disaster is just that … a notion.

“The buses and complaints were much worse in the past, and we paid a lot more money, millions more,” Lauretti said. “In the end, there are a lot of variables … the inconsistencies with the weather and whether students are in school, out of school, virtual, all day. There is nothing perfect about any of this.”

Regarding missed stops and routes, Lauretti said it is difficult to handle those situations when “drivers may call out of work an hour before they are supposed to be into work.

“That causes a problem,” the mayor said, adding that the pandemic has been the main driver in increased sick days. “Now you need a substitute that doesn’t know the route. But we are not the only municipality going through this, everyone else is as well.”

The solution, according to the mayor, is to consolidate bus routes. The city currently has 54 bus runs with 62 drivers and 15 monitors.

“That will help tremendously because we have same number of buses and almost the same number of routes now as when we had 2,500 more students in the system,” Lauretti said.

“There is something very wrong with that picture, and it’s all money,” the mayor added. “When you’re running that many buses and paying that many drivers and the buses are empty. We’ve got to consolidate the routes, and that will provide more availability of buses and drivers.”

He has also asked the Board of Education to survey parents to see who needs a ride to school, suggesting that an opt-out option could be available that could allow even further consolidation of routes.

“If we do (a survey) twice a year we would be able to adjust the routes,” Lauretti said. “That’s an immediate goal for me that that gets done.”

Lauretti praised bus company head Ken Nappi for his handling of the bus company, which was a hot topic at the Board of Education’s newest subcommittee on facilities, grounds and transportation, which met last week.

Kilmartin voiced her frustration at the subcommittee meeting, adding that what makes the situation more problematic is that “we have no formal record of the number and type of transportation contract violations, nor do we know if the company is adhering to the minimum number of bus drivers, monitors and back-ups as defined by the terms of the contract.”

Kilmartin, at the subcommittee meeting, asked Superintendent Ken Saranich and subcommittee Chair John Fitzgerald to track the data and get the number of contracted drivers and bus monitors — as well as the total reserve drivers on call — from the bus company.

Saranich acknowledged that there have been canceled and missed bus runs since the reopening of school in early January. He said he did not have a specific number of such missed runs and would not comment on the reasons for the incidents.

In the past, the company has acknowledged that bus runs had been canceled or missed because drivers needed to be isolated because of COVID-19.

Yolish said the formation of the subcommittee, which will be meeting monthly to address and try to resolve the issues, is a major step in addressing concerns and complaints raised about student transportation.

“This, I feel, is an incredibly positive move in the right direction on the board’s part,” Yolish said. “It is important to remember that the city is in charge of the buses and transportation of our students … but please be assured that the transportation and safety of our students is a responsibility that we hold at the top of our list.”

Kilmartin said until she raised questions at the subcommittee meeting, “there had been no board discussion about plans to find solutions or to hold the bus company accountable for their poor performance and many of my questions were met with the response: ‘We're working on it.’ I have no idea what that means.

“I understand that times are difficult," Kilmartin said. “I understand that COVID has made things challenging. The bus company didn’t do themselves any favors by not disclosing to drivers that multiple people at the transportation office had tested positive for COVID-19. All that did is stir up feelings of distrust and a heightened sense of compromised safety in their drivers, which simply exacerbates the other problems.”

Kilmartin said since the city bus company is not invoicing the Board of Education for transportation, there is no mechanism for financial accountability.

“It’s frustrating, to say the least,” Kilmartin added.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com