September 20, 2006

Will Busses Be A Budget BUS-ter?

For a district poised to embark on a multimillion dollar expansion project, going into the bus business may mean an extra bump in taxes. But East Hampton school district officials aren't sure. Since they received the news that the Edward Schaefer & Sons bus company, the district's longtime transportation provider, decided to cease working for the district, "We're really doing this by the seat of our pants," superintendent Ray Gualtiere said Monday.

"We have no history of what this cost is going to be," he admitted.

The superintendent said the district will have to get through at least a month before officials can determine what the cost will be.

The school community was shocked in August when Schaefer informed that it was going out of business. In a letter to the district, Len and Russell Schaefer credited an inability to find reliable drivers as the reason for the decision. That the district had hired away two of the company's drivers prompted a note of bitterness in the brief missive sent to the school. "We find ourselves competing for drivers with the district we are employed with. Little ironic, isn't it?" the Schaefers asked in their memo.

Stories differ between the company owners and the district. Gualtiere insisted that the district didn't actively solicit Schaefer drivers; they applied on their own. Additionally, he noted that the district needed to hire drivers and run its own busses because Schaefer refused to meet the need for a wheelchair accessible bus. Because the district is required by law to provide such transport, the district had to buy its own handicap bus. Len Schaefer explained that the company would have to buy two wheelchair accessible busses to carry out the new task, carry extra insurance, and give drivers special training. And that was simply cost-prohibitive.

Making matters worse, the district also must provide transportation for East Hampton resident students who attend private schools. According to Gualtiere, the administration "begged" Schaefer to bid on the contract for non-public runs, and it declined. With bids from other bus companies described as "so exorbitant," by the superintendent, East Hampton went forward with purchasing busses and assembling staff for the runs. Again, according to Len Schaefer, his staff jumped ship from the private company to the public. Schaefer acknowledged that the school district is in the position to offer better salaries and benefit packages than he can. Still, he said, "They knew I was having trouble finding drivers. They knew those people worked for me."

Finding decent help is problematic for many local businesses, Schaefer agreed. In fact, he said he let go of another client, the Springs district, about 10 or 15 years ago because he couldn't get help.

How much of a better offer the school can make to drivers remains to be seen, as does the overall cost for purchasing, fuelling, maintaining, housing and insuring the 24 busses the district will need to comprise a full fleet.

Because the district was able to cite an emergency need, it can lease busses for now. Gualtiere anticipates the district moving forward with purchases over a three-year time frame, picking up about a half dozen new vehicles each year. They cost between $70,000 and $80,000.

The superintendent emphatically opined that it will be "certainly cheaper" to undertake transportation in house over time.

In fact, although the district is reserving the right to sue Schaefer for breach of contract, Gualtiere was doubtful a lawsuit would be launched. In New York State, a litigant must prove damages, meaning the breach of contract cost the district more than it would have spent under the contract. He doesn't believe it will.

East Hampton is not the only district that's deciding to provide transportation in house. The Amagansett and Southampton school districts have both traditionally run their own busses. Springs is moving towards total in-house transportation as well.

Superintendent Tom Quinn also spoke of the burgeoning costs from the private company it uses — Montauk Bus Company — as the reason for the change. The district already has two large 66-passenger buses and a mini bus. The intention is to build up to a fleet of nine by the time the district's $1.3 million contract with Montauk Bus expires.

Even with the cost of the busses, drivers, a transportation coordinator, fuel and insurance, Quinn predicts the district will save an estimated $125,000 per year.

Meanwhile, back in East Hampton, according to Gualtiere the first week of school saw no more complaints about transportation than is usual at the outset of a school year. He acknowledged that there were scheduling conflicts between the elementary school dismissal and taking upper class teams to sporting events, but expressed confidence that the kinks would be ironed out quickly.

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