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Concord, Carlisle

Private school buses on agenda

Town meeting to debate outsourcing

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2012
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The future of Concord’s school bus service is expected to be a hot topic of discussion at a Special Town Meeting this week when a group of residents will ask officials not to hire a private contractor.

There are two articles on Tuesday’s warrant related to the School Department’s transportation system, which has been operated in-house since 1957. School officials recommended turning it over to a private contractor starting next year to save money, but many residents are strongly opposed to any change.

The Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee has not made a final decision and residents are hoping to convince them that outsourcing is a bad idea – even if it saves money.

“The town’s been doing it and they’ve got money invested in it,’’ said Frank Curran, a resident who worked at the Transportation Department for 39 years. “Why eliminate something that’s working successfully? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’’

Lawn signs have sprouted up all over town supporting Curran’s petition article. Meanwhile, resident Phebe Ham submitted an article asking the School Committee to “search diligently for ways’’ to maintain the existing service. The article would also establish an advisory committee that would prepare a detailed cost analysis and hold meetings to gather public input.

“What I want is to have the matter discussed in a reasonable way to see what can be the solution, because it will be in effect for years to come,’’ Ham said. “We’ve run our own system and it’s done very well. It makes sense not to dump the whole system without looking at it carefully.’’

School officials say something needs to change because the existing transportation facility, located at the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, must be torn down this summer to make way for a new high school. Concord’s fleet provides bus service to all Concord students and Carlisle’s high school students.

Instead of spending $1.2 million to build a new storage and maintenance facility, school officials recommended outsourcing the bus services. But after many residents balked at the idea, the regional school committee indicated that it would take a step back, keep the service in-house next year, and spend the time to review options.

The School Department recently put out a bid looking to lease a new facility for a year but also issued an outsourcing bid just in case the town was unable to find suitable space, said Peter Fischelis, chairman of the regional school committee.

Fischelis said a site is available to lease in Billerica but some school committee members want to see the results of the outsourcing bid first. The outsourcing bids just came in last week and haven’t been reviewed, he said.

“Nothing has been decided yet,’’ said Fischelis.

Fischelis said the committee meets Monday, the day before the Special Town Meeting. He said the committee has not taken a position on the warrant articles and noted that they aren’t binding even if approved. But Fischelis said the outcome of the vote will send a message to committee members.

“Town Meeting cannot mandate the School Committee do something, but to go against the will of Town Meeting is not something Concord looks favorably on,’’ Fischelis said.

Fischelis said he had hoped the committee would have committed to at least keeping Concord grades K-8 in-house next year while other options are explored, but not all members are on the same page.

Fischelis said it has been an emotional issue for community members who feel caught off guard by the proposal and feel strongly about keeping the bus system a town asset.

“We expect it to be a very tough Town Meeting,’’ Fischelis said.

Ham said even if the vote isn’t legally binding, she hopes the committee will feel morally obligated to uphold the will of the voters.

“I believe there is a mounting feeling that the public’s been left out of any discussion on this so we need to examine the situation and make wise decisions for the future,’’ Ham said.

Ham and Curran said residents are also upset that the money invested in the transportation facility will be wasted if it’s torn down.

“They’re just taking that whole bus yard and tearing it down,’’ Curran said. “It’s taxpayers’ money.’’

Ham said the advisory committee could look into whether the building could be moved to a different location on the school grounds or other town-owned land.

“We paid for those things,’’ Ham said. “It’s pretty wasteful.’’

Concord’s annual Town Meeting starts Monday and the special Town Meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the high school. The special meeting includes articles not submitted in time to be included on the annual warrant.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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