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Preston school board rejects outsourcing school bus service

Preston – The Board of Education voted 4-3 Monday to reject a proposal to outsource school bus transportation to the applause of many of the 50 people who attended the meeting and submitted petitions with 364 signatures opposing outsourcing bus service.

With the vote, Preston will remain one of only about a dozen school districts across the state that still operate their own bus services. The board has sought outsourcing proposals three times in the past 13 years, but rejected the proposals each time.

The latest proposal called for entering into a five-year contract with New Britain-based DATTCO that would have saved the district $242,065 over the five-year period, including a savings of $73,990 in the upcoming 2016-17 fiscal year, according to revised figures reviewed by the board prior to Monday's vote.

Supporters on the board cited several other indirect savings to the school district or the town, including the growing cost of finding replacement drivers when a Preston driver is absent. Board member Sean Nugent said absentee replacement cost is a growing problem and is already $21,000 over budget this year. By outsourcing bus service, Nugent said, the town would avoid bonding about $1 million to replace the town's aging school bus fleet in the near future.

DATTCO also would have paid the town a rental fee to use the bus garage and would have paid motor vehicle taxes to Preston for buses housed there.

But emotional issues of local control and retaining current drivers – although DATTCO pledged to hire all qualified Preston drivers and retain the current union if 51 percent of drivers stayed – prevailed over direct or indirect perceived savings.

“I have two kids, one with special needs,” board member Dan Harris said. “My driver's awesome.”

Board member Karin Davis agreed that absenteeism is a problem and said the drivers need to help solve it. Davis, who said she has three children in the school system, voted against outsourcing bus service, along with Harris, Deborah Burke-Grabarek and Charles Raymond.

Board Chairwoman Jan Clancy, Nugent and Cindy Luty supported the proposed DATTCO contract. Each enumerated savings and current issues of absenteeism, the need to replace aging buses and the quality of service DATTCO could provide.

Harris, a strong supporter of keeping local bus service, said the board should have been required to go out to bid again based on several last-minute changes to the proposed contract negotiated over the past few days in response to questions that arose at a public forum with DATTCO last Wednesday. The changes described Monday included prices for DATTCO to supply buses to other town agencies and the elimination of a provision that DATTCO would purchase the town's bus fleet.

During public comment, several bus drivers and parents addressed the board asking that the DATTCO contract be rejected. Some expressed skepticism that the company's service and commitment to safety and quality described during a presentation by DATTCO officials last week would come to fruition.

Drivers said they take extra time to pay attention to the students, and often refer to them as “our kids.”

“Contractors,” 21-year Preston driver Pearle Potter said, “everyone knows they're out to make a profit.”

Parent Maggie Tourangeau said “keeping things local” is important in a small town, and outsourcing the bus service would take it out of local control. Others agreed, and worried that if the outsourced system didn't work, the town would not be able to restore local control.

“Once these buses are gone, there's no going back,” resident Glenn Babbitt said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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