Op-Ed: City-run bus company not meeting promised goals

Matt McGee

Matt McGee

Contributed photo

First and foremost, I want to shout out our Shelton bus drivers, who have one of the toughest and most taken for granted jobs in the city. Thank you for doing all that you can to get our kids to school and back safely every school day.

As Shelton residents, we currently find ourselves in year two of the three-year court-ordered settlement in which the City of Shelton has taken on the responsibility of running our own school bus company. I have done extensive research on this issue and intend to present to you my findings in the most objective way possible.

First, you should know that there are cost savings to the BOE and the city in running our own bus company. However, the Lauretti administration routinely tries to inflate the actual cost savings in their political rhetoric.

In a Connecticut Post article dated Jan. 19, 2019, the below quote is as follows:

“Lauretti said his office’s estimates show an annual $1 million cost savings by the city… taking over the bus routes. ‘We could be wrong, but that will be on me. I’ll bear that burden.’”

The reality is that for the BOE, their savings have not come anywhere close to the mayor’s promised “annual $1 million” in savings. The 2019-20 BOE budget book very clearly states on page 34 that the total cost for student transportation to the BOE for the 2018-19 school year (the last year using a private bus company) was budgeted at $5,367,437, while the budgeted cost for the 2019-20 school year came in slightly less, at $5,166,513, for a total budgeted savings to the BOE of only $200,924.

While the BOE is not enjoying anywhere near a promised $1 million in savings, the mayor and the BOA reported a bus company savings of $847,000 for the 2019-20 school year (This figure is not including the documented $200,924 in budgeted savings to the BOE). However, COVID-19 and all subsequent budget years will be outliers. It is crucial to remember that buses for the 2019-20 school year stopped running on March 13, 2020. In normal years, the city would need to pay for its bus operations throughout the entire year. The average price paid per month from the BOE to the bus company is $262,500. So give or take that with the city-run bus company ceasing to operate on March 13, 2020 (at the time with about three months of operation left, as the school year ends in June), we can multiply the monthly average of $262,500 by three months to get an estimated total savings in the first three months of ceasing operations as $787,500. Thus if the 2019-20 school year had been a normal school year, the City would’ve actually saved only around $59,500.

But looking at the numbers isn’t all that we must do. We must also evaluate the quality of service our students and parents are receiving. In just the last year and a half alone, the city bus company has been prone to numerous blemishes, including the city failing to properly drug test drivers in time to begin their 2019 summer routes, the city delaying the first day of the 2019-20 school year because they failed to hire enough drivers, a scandal involving cannabis and a bus aide that was not disclosed to parents until almost a week after the incident and more recently, the all too often bus routes that just aren’t running due to mass staff call outs.

So where do we go from here? Many parents are frustrated with the quality of service that is being offered by the bus company and the savings, while real, will not nearly be what was promised to the Shelton taxpayer in the long term.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that our education budget is failing to realize any of the cost saving initiatives that the city has put in place throughout COVID. All of the recent $847,000 is being returned to the general fund and not to the city’s education budget, which has suffered around 30 position cuts over the past two years alone.

The good news is that there are many ways to fix our city-run bus company, the first of which comes down to basic communication. Mayor Lauretti, bus company head Ken Nappi and Superintendent of Schools Ken Saranich must improve the communication amongst themselves so that they can alert parents of any bus issues in a timely manner -- not 15 minutes before the bus is supposed to come.

Our BOA can demand more accountability and transparency from our city bus company by creating a separate committee (much like our BOA street committee, for example) to oversee the department.

Our BOA and the mayor can also allow our education system to benefit from COVID cost savings by redistributing some of the $847,000 saved this past year on bus transportation back to the BOE to pay for much needed technology and building improvements. This is an idea that has been endorsed by various members of the BOE and by Alderman David Gidwani.

The BOE can also hire their own legal counsel to hold the city bus company accountable. For example, a penalty that is outlined specifically within the contract is a $50 fine “if a bus is more than 15 minutes late in the AM or PM (with no circumstances like weather or traffic getting in the way of the bus being on time).” Currently the BOE is represented by the same legal counsel that represents the city (a change Lauretti-endorsed BOE members put into place at their second official meeting in late 2019). In order for this contract to truly be enforced, the BOE should go back to hiring their own legal counsel free from any conflicts of interest.

Lastly, it is important to remember that the residents of Shelton, not just Mayor Lauretti, all effectively own this bus company. Thus, as the owners of said bus company, if we are dissatisfied with those who we are currently employing to run our bus company, we have the power to effectively “fire” them come Nov. 2, and to instead bring in new leadership with fresh ideas about how to best run the service.