Bus contract could cost education board $1 million

The city has yet to decide which company will drive its students for the next five years, and it could end up costing it approximately $1 million, according to Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden.

The extended school year program for Shelton special education students in the district begins July 9 and the district’s contract with its current provider, Landmark, ends June 30.

Selling the city’s school buses could be a way for the district to save and make money, rather than using them to transport its students, Mayor Mark Lauretti said. The scenario in which the city sells its buses will take place only if the mayor and education board can’t come to an agreement on a bus contractor.

The Board of Education’s ability to make a decision on a service provider became more complicated when Lauretti recently announced that no private contractor the district hires would be permitted use the city-owned school buses, bus yard or repair facility.

Board of Ed members Holden, Tom Minotti, Kate Kutash, Anne Gaydos, Mandy Kilmartin, and David Gioiello issued a letter to the editor last week expressing their concerns about the effects of Lauretti’s announcement about the limits of private contractors.

This inconvenience to service providers is where the board stands to lose the estimated million dollars, according to Holden.

“This means that with two months to go until summer school, we are forced to go back to look at all of the bidders and they’ve got to figure out where they can come up with 60 buses and where they can park them,” said Holden. “When contractors bid, they figured that they would be able to use the city-owned buses like Landmark has for the past five years and they bid based on being able to rent the parking lot and repair facility for $60,000 for the year. Now they need to find a place to park and work on the buses and they don’t have a lot of time to do it. Plus, they need to find about 60 buses they can use. They could end up buying the buses the city is threatening to sell, but what kind of deal is the mayor going to offer them on something like that?”

Holden said it’s not clear how much the city would charge to transport 3,600 of its students to school each day.

The lowest bidder for district transportation, Durham, told the board it would withdraw its bid if the board didn’t make a decision. Durham’s bid was $600,000 per year more than the current school bus contract with Landmark.

Lauretti said there’s no reason the contract should be increasing by that amount.

“Mark Holden put himself in that spot,” said Lauretti. “They’ve refused to go with the city’s proposal on school transportation. We put the best solution on the table for them and they declined.”

With fingers in the mayor’s office pointing at the Board of Ed, Holden said, he’s hopeful the mayor will soon understand how much of an impact this additional cost could have on the district’s staff and students

“We are hoping that the mayor will change his mind. We don’t really have any reason to believe that will happen based on past practice, but perhaps if he understands how nasty this really is for us then he will,” said Holden while explaining the struggle of having to make budget cuts. “One of the toughest parts about being funded at the level we have been for years now is that we’ve already cut the ‘easy stuff’ to find. Actually, we’ve probably cut all that we can, so a lot of it is going to come out of teachers. We’re going to see class sizes climb considerably.”

Holden said the city could help the Board of Education by giving it access to the additional $680,000 that was figured into the state’s budget for the Education Cost Sharing grant last week.

“That is money they could give us without costing the taxpayers anything. The mill rate would remain as proposed by the mayor,” said Holden.

Lauretti said the Board of Education’s budget struggles are a result of its negotiation tactics. The mayor added that the city’s purchase of 60 propane-fueled buses five years ago for $5 million to help save money didn’t work. The buses will be paid off in June.

“Correct the structural deficiencies and then you’ll have support, but until you do that I’m not allowing them to throw good money at the bad, which is what they do all the time,” said Lauretti. “They negotiate these contracts and say, ‘You just pay for it’ to the city. They do the same thing with employment contracts. Everybody gets taken care of and you guys just pay for it. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. If they were better negotiators we wouldn’t be in this situation. They’re going to lay off teachers, but everyone in central office gets a nice pay increase.”

The Board of Aldermen plan to vote on the city’s final budget Tuesday, May 29. The Board of Education will have until the end of June to determine what its budget will look like.