Shelton Advocating alternate routes

June 8, 2018 GMT

SHELTON — Talks are under way that could put city students on the same city-owned school buses next fall that they rode to school this year.

But it’s not a certainty. The mayor has threatened to sell those buses. And it’s not clear who would come out ahead, financially, should a deal be reached.

At immediate stake is some $800,000 that was tacked onto the school district’s contract with its new bus company, Durham School Services.

That amount of money could prevent teacher layoffs and keep students from paying to play sports, as is currently threatened. Or it could help a municipal government in a constant struggle to hold the line on taxes amid lessening support from Hartford.

Things have come to this because city officials — including Mayor Mark Lauretti — say they didn’t get their money’s worth out of a fleet of propane-powered buses purchased with city tax dollars five years ago.

Instead of going down, costs keep escalating. Lauretti proposes taking over operation of the fleet.

School officials — led by Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet — maintain they just can’t hand over a school bus transportation contract to anyone, even the city, without details.

“It is not clear to me if they have the skill set or the capacity to do it,” Clouet told his Board of Education last week. “I’d like to see facts and a written proposal.”

The city may own buses and a bus yard, but it has no experience transporting some 3,500 students on a daily basis, Clouet maintains.

Lauretti said he does not understand the concern.

“If I am making them whole, if I would bear all the cost of the increase, why would they care,” Lauretti said Thursday.

By then, he and Durham, the firm the school board picked as its bus contractor, were trading phone calls.

“I guess they need buses,” Lauretti said.

Looking back

Lauretti said the school district signed a bad deal five years ago with Landmark, a Canandian-based company.

“I told them not to sign a five year deal,” the mayor said. “They didn’t listen. I am not about to repeat the same thing.”

Five years ago, the city purchased 60 propane-powered buses for a total of $5.5 million. The hope was to save money on fuel and equipment.

“You would think if you take away the capitol expense a company has to incur, that would take some of the sting away,” Lauretti said.

Instead, costs keep escalating.

When Durham submitted a bid months ago to take over the district’s school transportation contract it was for $3.7 million — $600,000 more than the current school bus contract. It also was assumed that city-own buses and depot would be part of the deal.

That assumption proved to be wrong.

“The school system needs to reverse a bad decision they made,” said Lauretti. “They need to own up to it.”

Clouet has a long list of emails and phone exchanges with city officials documenting attempts to get the city to give the district a definitive plan and a firm price for running the system.

On May 25, the district finally signed a contract with Durham. Shortly after, the city offered to lease its buses to the district for $1 for the next school year if the city were allowed to take over the transportation of students in 2019-20.

Lauretti said he has promised the district it would pay no more than it was paying for transportation, but he did not guarantee that would always be the case.

“Nothing is forever,” he said. “You do things for as long as they work then you shift gears.”

Not the norm

If the city of Shelton were to start running a school bus company, it would be unusual.

Brad Cohen, president of the Connecticut Operators of School Transportation Association, said he knows of roughly a dozen school districts — but no municipalities — in the state that run their own school buses.

“Districts that do it have been doing it forever,” Cohen said.

He said he knows of districts that, over the years, have turned their bus operations over to private contractors. He said he didn’t know of one that in recent years decided to start running its own buses.

“It is not easy,” Cohen said. “It’s complex. You need someone who knows what they are doing.”

There are all sorts of federal and state rules to follow, he said.

“In this day and age everything in the public is hard to do,” Lauretti said.

“We were prepared to put a management team in place, had the driver’s union in place, a mechanic,” he said. “The only thing different would be the name of the operator.”

Making a deal

It’s hard to say whether the $4.3 million Shelton will pay Durham in 2018-19 — when Durham will be providing 64 buses buses — is a fair price.

“We did look at the contract prices of neighboring towns with adjustments for the variables,” Drapp said. “We also negotiated the price down from the original bid by over $200,000 to ensure the district was getting the best deal.”

Cohen, whose association includes most school bus operators in the state, said a standard rate is hard to pin down. There are so many variables.

“Towns next to each other will sometimes not be close,” Cohen said. “Generally pricing has been going up significantly.”

Propane school buses are more fuel-efficient but also not the norm. Most buses still run on diesel fuel. Bus companies looking to replace one or two buses are probably not going to want to have buses that operate on two different fuel systems, Cohen said.

Should the city ultimately decide to sell them, it may have to sell the fleet as a lot.