Concord residents are up in arms about a school department proposal to close its town-run transportation system and outsource the bus operations to a private contractor.
Dozens of residents attended a forum Wednesday night hoping to convince School Committee members to reject the administration’s recommendation to contract with Cincinnati-based First Student.
Residents lined up to question First Student’s safety and performance record, express concern about the future of existing drivers, complain about the bidding process, accuse officials of rushing the process without properly vetting other options, and urge the board to look elsewhere for money.
Many also told officials they’d be willing to pay a bus fee if it meant keeping the existing system in place.
“Outsourcing transportation just sends chills down my spine,’’ said resident Margaret Gaudet. She said the drivers, many of whom have been with the town for 20, 30 and 40 years, know the roads, the families and the neighborhoods.
A spokesman for First Student said safety is a paramont concern for the company, and it endeavors to hire drivers already working in a community, after they pass required background checks.
Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee chairman Peter Fischelis said after the meeting that he will meet with the chairs of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee to discuss options.
“Then the School Committee will have a discussion and determine whether it’s prudent to move forward, take a step back, rebid, or form a committee,’’ Fischelis said. “It’s important to note that having people show up and voice opinions is one of the great things about Concord and our community. It does not fall on deaf ears.’’
Fischelis is a member of both the regional and Concord school boards, which will vote on the issue. The committees meet in joint session Feb. 14.
School department officials are making the recommendation because the transportation facility, now located at Concord-Carlisle Regional High, must be demolished to make way for the new $92.5 million school. Site work will begin this summer, which means the town must come up with a new system for next fall. They also looked at outsourcing because the district is facing a $400,000 budget gap for next year.
“This is a very difficult and challenging decision and we’ve been working on a solution for the past five months,’’ said Superintendent Diana Rigby.
School officials acknowledged that the existing bus system works well but they are being forced to consider other options in light of the high school project and budget constraints. The department consists of 36 buses and drivers, three mechanics, three administrators, a bus repair and maintenance building, parking area, administration building, and fuel storage and pumping facility.
The cost to operate the facility and pay for salaries and benefits comes to $2,185,120. The First Student contract would cost $1,811,829, for a savings of about $373,291 per year, said John Flaherty, the district’s deputy superintendent for finance and operations.
Residents said they understand the district’s desire to save money but stressed that safety should not be sacrificed. They said it’s more important to maintain control over the bus operations and keep the drivers in place.
“They are the contact between home and school,’’ said parent Nancy Knapp Piccione before the meeting. “The driver is getting my kids to school safely and on time. I understand money is an issue, but it seems like the cuts could come from somewhere else.’’
Rachael Morris, a teacher and parent, said it’s a matter of public safety.
“It’s not a tough decision,’’ she said. “You take the lowest bidder for computers or windows. You don’t do that when it’s my kids.’’
Others pointed out that First Student has had problems in Boston making sure the buses run on time.
Flaherty said he has checked with other local school districts that use First Student, and they reported that the company is doing a fine job. He said the Boston problems had to do with bus routes set by the city, and not the performance of the company.
Timothy Stokes, a spokesman for First Student, said in an interview that safety is a top priority for the company.
“The safety and security of our students is our core value and something we take very seriously,’’ said Stokes.
Several residents also said it’s not right to take jobs away from the hard-working drivers.
“Concord is a wealthy town,’’ said resident Fred Martin, who was unable to attend the meeting. “Some of these drivers have worked there for 40 years, and to summarily fire them is unfair and cold-hearted.”
In addition to suggesting a bus fee, some residents said they’d support a tax increase to pay for a new transportation facility. Others urged the School Committee to form an advisory committee and to rebid the contract in an effort to attract more companies and to guarantee that it was done properly.
“It’s fiscal malfeasance to propose this as something that’s best for the town of Concord,’’ Martin said. “It just feels like it’s not on the up and up.’’
The department’s recommendation calls for hiring First Student, one of two companies that bid for the work, using the town-owned fleet of buses, and storing the buses in the school parking lots. The bus routes would stay the same and the town hopes that First Service would hire the existing drivers. Flaherty said, however, that there is no guarantee the drivers would be hired.
Stokes said that as long as the Concord drivers pass all necessary background checks, First Student will make every effort to hire them.
“One of the main things we do try to do is hire the drivers that are there,’’ Stokes said. “They know the area, the routes, the students and the families.’’
Some parents have pointed out that if the drivers work for First Student they will no longer be participating in the town's pension system, though they would get benefits they have already earned.
Stokes said he did not know the details of Concord’s bid but said the company offers “competitive’’ benefits packages.
Flaherty said that by retaining ownership of the buses, the district will have the option of resuming its own operations at a later date.
The town looked into other options, but all are costly, Flaherty said. They include retaining ownership, operation, and maintenance of the fleet, but leasing space for a new maintenance and bus operations facility. He said that option would cost the town an additional $60,000 a year. Another option would be building a new facility for $1.2 million.
Fischelis said he did note that residents expressed an interest in a fee structure or paying for a new transportation facility. But he said even if the town comes up with that money, the department still has to find $400,000 in savings elsewhere to cover the gap for the next fiscal year.
“The administration and School Committee is doing everything they can to keep any cuts out of the classroom and focus on the education program,’’ Fischelis said. “Our hope is with savings that will be potentially achieved by outsourcing, that in turn may relieve some pressures so we can keep educational programs intact.’’
He did say that the Finance Committee could revise its budget guidelines or Town Meeting could opt to reject the Finance Committee’s recommendation.
“Communities have to make choices,’’ he said, and what officials heard at the meeting "is that people there place a high value on the transportation department. We have a great system. There’s no question about that. It comes down to the financial choices we have to make as a community.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.