Bus decision in Montville leaves questions about aging fleet

Montville — Town school officials say the Board of Education’s vote to keep its town-run school bus system is final, at least for this year, but leaves questions about how the district will handle an aging fleet, an upcoming union negotiation with drivers and the possibility of privatizing in the future.

Despite frustration from town and school officials who say the move to hire a private contractor to run its busing system would have saved $2 million over five years, the 4-3 vote at the May 16 school board meeting won’t be reconsidered until the superintendent’s office issues a new request for proposals.

"It's a decision ... we're going to have to move forward from," school board Chairman Robert Mitchell said.

Montville’s school bus drivers and mechanics, who are all members of the Teamsters Local 493 union chapter, opposed the board's decision to issue the request for bids in October and asked the board not to vote in favor of the contract.

Many argued that they came to Montville for the union-negotiated high salaries and good benefits, and threatened to leave if the private contract were approved, statements that Montville Superintendent Brian Levesque called "scare tactics."

The board has requested bids from private transportation companies in the past, and none has reached a vote, but Levesque said he thought this year, at the end of the drivers’ union contract that expires in July, would be the ideal time to solicit a better crop of bids.

Four companies had submitted bids.

Levesque negotiated a deal with Illinois-based Durham School Services, which operates school bus systems nationally and in a handful of Connecticut towns, and said the company would “run a more efficient and safer operation than we do” and buy the town’s aging bus fleet.

Scare tactics or not, the drivers’ arguments won out. Board members Joe Aquitante, Carrie Thomas Baxter, Daniel Bosivert and Colleen Rix voted "no" to the contract after a lengthy presentation from Durham School Services officials and several comments from drivers and their supporters.

Mitchell said it was unlikely that the board would be willing to issue another request for bids during the course of the next union contract.

And even if the board does want to hear from companies, the companies may not come to Montville.

“I think the companies would think that we’re less than serious, and we wouldn’t get serious bids,” he said. “We would not have the competitive bid process that we had this last time.”

Several personnel issues in Montville’s school bus system this year led to the firing of two managers of the bus garage and the hiring of Levesque’s mother, former Plainfield school bus garage manager Jackie Dubois, as a temporary contractor overseeing busing in Montville.

Drivers opposed to the privatization move said the district should iron out the kinks in its own transportation system instead of paying a company to do it, but Levesque said the personnel issues are unrelated to the proposed contract and that they have been solved with the hiring of a permanent manager.

The board must now negotiate another multiyear contract with the Teamsters, and mull how it will deal with an aging bus fleet and no funds to pay for new vehicles, Levesque said.

“We have a really old bus fleet, with no money to buy new ones,” he said.

The contract with Durham School Services would have required the company to purchase 24 new buses over five years and keep the vehicles in the fleet at an average age of 5 years old, Levesque said.

The company also would have installed GPS equipment on all its buses, allowing parents to track their children’s route to school and home, and would have offered jobs to all the drivers Montville now employs.

Six of the district’s buses are more than two decades old, Levesque said. The last new buses the district bought were paid for with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The school board has included requests for money for buses in its capital budget proposals for the past several years, he said, but consistently has been turned down.

The board included requests for funding for buses in the 2018 budget proposal under consideration by the Town Council this month, but those requests already have been nixed and are unlikely to be funded in the final budget, according to Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Longton.

“I don’t believe we’ll be lucky enough to get one new bus,” Levesque said.

Private companies operate bus transportation for most nearby school districts. Montville is one of only 12 districts in the state to operate its own fleet and employ its own drivers.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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