School District Takes Transportation Reins
Committee Members Vote 8-1 to Allow Superintendent's Office to Run Busses; Costs Projected to Stay Under Budget
By RACHEL KOVAC
School committee members voted this week to allow the Vineyard school district to continue managing its own transportation system for the remainder of the year, but not without some hesitation.
The vote to allow the superintendent's office to continue managing the busses came Tuesday night in an emergency meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district committee and the up-Island regional school committee. The decision still leaves unanswered questions for bus drivers, school leaders and taxpayers.
Days before school began early last month, officials scrambled to put together a temporary plan to carry Vineyard children to school.
The plan was needed after MV Coachlines abruptly pulled out of its transportation contract with the Island school district amid a heated labor dispute with bus drivers. Company president Edward W. Pigman said he could not find enough drivers willing to work for him to fulfill his contract.
With freshmen needing transportation for orientation the next day and school officially beginning for all students two days after that, the school district had two options - award the bus contract to the second bidder, the tour bus company Island Transport, or take on the responsibility themselves.
Following the recommendation of a transportation subcommittee, the two school committees voted 10-1 to allow Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss to run the busses for six weeks.
Under the initial plan, the transportation managers were Mr. Weiss, Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, and James Maseda, a longtime bus driver and coordinator for athletic games and field trips.
This week the two school committees voted 8-1 to allow Mr. Weiss to put a management plan in place that includes hiring a manager, developing policies and procedures, evaluating bus routes and creating a salary scale for bus drivers.
"We have contracted with a consultant to work at routes, drivers salaries and policies and procedures," Mr. Weiss said yesterday. "We will as quickly as possible come up with a reasonable salary schedule. We believe it will be a fair and competitive salary."
At Tuesday's meeting some committee members expressed concern about costs and whether the school should really be involved in the transportation business.
"I don't understand why we are getting into the transportation business," said Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a member of the up-Island school committee and the lone dissenting vote. "All of a sudden it became a front burner decision to take on the transportation business ourselves. There was no real serious analysis of what that might encumber."
Mr. Manter also questioned the cost of running the busses. Robert Tankard, chairman of the transportation subcommittee, said there is plenty of money in the budget to run the busses this year.
Ms. Tierney has put together a worksheet with draft estimates of transportation expenses. Her estimates project the actual cost for this year at about $200,000 less than the $1.49 million budgeted, but a good chunk of the estimate is still soft or unknown, including salaries for drivers and a transportation manager. Rising fuel costs and maintenance on the busses, which is done by the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA), may also affect the transportation budget.
"Even with these estimated costs we are not going to have to go back to the towns to ask for more money," Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Tankard agreed, saying that money was one of the key factors in the transportation subcommittee's decision.
"Down the road I think this is better for the school system," he said.
Committee members did not say whether they would decide to continue to run the busses next year.
School transportation has been unsettled on the Vineyard for the last several years. Island Transport had held the bussing contract for more than 20 years prior to last fall. But heading into the final year of its five-year contract, a public dispute over autonomy and finances caused the school district to sever its ties with the Oak Bluffs company.
Then weeks before the start of school last year, former schools superintendent Kriner Cash brokered a deal to hire the VTA to maintain the busses and MV Coachlines to manage and operate them.
MV Coachlines was awarded a second, one-year contract this summer. But in August bus drivers met with school committee members to say they would not work for the company because of unpaid bonuses, inhospitable working conditions, reduced routes and distrust of Mr. Pigman.
"We believe we can do it for a year and explore the best way to do transportation in a fair and equitable way for the kids, drivers and the community," Mr. Weiss said this week.
Mr. Manter said if the school committee decides the superintendent's office should not be involved with transportation, the decision would have to be made soon and the contract put out to bid around December. He questioned whether an informed decision could be made based on the limited time.
"I wouldn't have any problem if we had done a full study," he said. "But to do this under great pressure doesn't seem in the best interest. I have a difficult time swallowing this and I don't know if we're really saving money. In the long term it usually doesn't work out."
Mr. Weiss said even if the current plan doesn't work out, running the busses for the year gives school leaders an edge when making decisions about transportation.
"At least we will be able to make decisions on transportation with a better knowledge base," he said.