BOE Sending Letter Asking For Help With Bus Situation
The Board of Education sent a letter to state officials requesting help with transporting students to and from school after the idea was first brought up at the Board of Education’s January 17 meeting.
While a bus driver shortage is not new or specific to Newtown, there are challenges specific to Newtown, according to discussion at the board’s January 26 meeting, when sending a letter was approved by the board.
Frustration was evident at the meeting, both from board members and from Superintendent of Schools Chris Melillo.
Both Newtown’s contracted bus companies, primarily All-Star Transportation for in-district routes, and EdAdvance for out-of-district routes, were mentioned at the meeting for having a bus driver shortage. But it was transporting students to and from school that received the most attention at the meeting.
Board of Education Chair Deborra Zukowski mentioned that at one recent point there were 24 “call outs” that resulted in parked buses over a two-week span.
“We have to come up with some way where we can actually get our students to school on time,” Zukowski said.
Melillo then shared that he had a scheduled meeting with All-Star Transportation for the following day and First Selectman Dan Rosenthal was also invited to the meeting.
“I expect solutions,” Melillo said. The superintendent said he told the bus company not to “show up” unless it could present resolutions.
“I was hired here to improve teaching and learning: I am spending my time on transportation,” said Melillo.
The superintendent said the district has tried offering more money, has tried re-routing, has taken buses offline, and has reached out to representatives for help.
“I will be meeting with All-Star tomorrow. First Selectman Rosenthal will be joining me at that meeting, and I am expecting results. And hopefully I can report results,” Melillo said.
The following day, Melillo sent a letter to Newtown school district families describing a “short-term solution.”
“We are working with the bus company to combine existing routes as a short-term solution to our bus driver shortage,” the letter read. “By next week we will have identified the buses and routes that will be altered and changes will take effect beginning Monday, February 6.
“We will ensure that all parents and students are made aware of these changes by next week so you will have ample time to adjust your schedule,” the letter continued. “We currently have drivers that are enrolled in classes and we are hoping to have them licensed as soon as all of the requirements are met.
“The licensing process does take several weeks and we appreciate your patience as we continue to work on this problem,” it continues. “If you are interested in being a bus driver, classes start on January 30. Please see the link for the job application: all-startransportation.com/application.”
The letter also explained that a district survey to ascertain which families were choosing to transport children to and from school and which high school students would be driving themselves, was extended to January 30. The survey’s aim was to consolidate routes if possible.
The School Board’s Letter
Following the school board’s approval of having Zukowski and member Dan Cruson edit a draft of the letter presented by Cruson to the board, the letter was completed and shared for publication.
Following the meeting, Zukowski said the letter was a team effort between the board and the superintendent.
The letter was sent to Governor Ned Lamont, Connecticut State Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, State Senator Tony Hwang, State Representative Mitch Bolinsky, State Representative Marty Foncello, and Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.
The letter follows:
Dear Governor Lamont, Commissioner Russell-Tucker, Senator Hwang, Representative Bolinsky, Representative Foncello, and Attorney General Tong.
As members of the Newtown Board of Education, we have been actively supporting our Superintendent and his administration as they navigate Newtown Public Schools’ first normal school year since the start of the pandemic. Our District has made notable progress addressing interrupted learning and helping our students with mental health struggles. However we, along with our colleagues around the state, are still struggling with transportation; we do not have enough bus drivers to provide consistent busing that gets our students to school on time. We ask your assistance to help all of us find solutions that ensure buses can once again properly serve our families.
We understand that throughout our state and country many older drivers now feel uncomfortable with the potential health risks of driving large numbers of kids and that there is a robust job market that pulls younger drivers away from a field that is often low-paying and high stress, resulting in a smaller pool of qualified drivers to fill the needs of many districts. Also, candidates who receive their Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs) through provider-sponsored training programs are often lured away by better pay and benefits offered by corporate America. (Competing with such offers would place too high an economic burden on our taxpayers.)
In Newtown specifically, we entered into a new five-year contract with All-Star Transportation in May, 2022, when the driver shortage was even more pronounced. The company was the only one to respond to our [Request For Proposal] RFP. We were told that non-competitive bidding was yet another consequence of the driver shortage since transportation providers were unwilling to take on the risk of finding an adequate number of drivers in new districts while facing their own shortages. By the start of the 2022-23 school year, All-Star was able to provide one driver per bus (but no spares, as required in the contract), in large part because of the Board’s and District’s actions to consolidate buses and provide additional money for driver retention. However, as we moved into the late fall and winter, illnesses increased. Without spare drivers buses were “parked,” ie, not available to transport students to and/or from school. In December, 18 buses were parked and 24 buses were parked for the first half of January. When buses are parked, the affected students must either be transported to school by their families or wait for a bus to finish its scheduled runs and return for them, meaning they are significantly late to school and/or late getting home from school.
The driver shortage has also impacted our extracurricular and special education out-of-district transportation. Because of the shortage, All-Star — our contracted provider of extracurricular transportation — has not been able to provide services for many sport-related trips resulting in a high cost to the District to hire alternate transportation. While the District has been creative, for example sharing buses with other districts, there is still a significant financial burden to absorb. Like All-Star, EdAdvance — our out-of-district Special Education transportation provider — has been unable to provide us with enough drivers to fulfill their contract since the beginning of the year. We have also supplemented their services with multiple other providers, at close to twice the cost.
The bus driver shortage affects all Connecticut school districts in some manner. We ask if there is something you can do to help address the driver shortage in the short term while districts continue recruiting and training. For instance, we understand that Massachusetts activated the National Guard to transport students to and from school. Extra personnel, working in conjunction with the existing transportation providers, would significantly help relieve some of this pressure. Having such short-term assistance would help ensure that our students are able to fully participate in our educational programs while avoiding any economic burdens that families and our District might face because of unbudgeted cost overages in transportation.
Thank you for taking the time to read our concerns and hopefully, together, we can navigate this difficult situation and come up with some creative solutions.
Deborra Zukowski, John Vouros, Don Ramsey, Dan Cruson, Janet Kuzma, Jenn Larkin, and Alison Plante
Education Editor Eliza Van can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.