Alleging Contract Lapses, Schools' Bus Company Says It Won't Run in Fall

By CHRIS BURRELL

Just one month before a new school year is supposed to get in gear, the owner of the bus company contracted to transport students is locked in a dispute with school leadership and says he won't roll out the buses.

In a highly-charged letter written Friday, James C. (Jack) Dario Jr., president of Island Transport, Inc., told Vineyard school committee members he has decided to end the service provided by his company.

Mr. Dario charged school leadership with failing to uphold its side of the current contract, which expires next June.

"These failures involve safety concerns, driver discrimination, financial obligations, harassment of company management and/or employees, and a general failure to work with us cooperatively has prevailed," wrote Mr. Dario.

As of yesterday, neither Diane Wall, chairman of the All-Island School Committee, nor Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash had received the letter, but they have decided to convene a meeting today of the schools transportation subcommittee - which includes school committee members as well as the assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, Amy Tierney.

News of a rift with the bus company comes just a week after both principals in the two up-Island schools announced they were quitting, a move that has forced Mr. Cash and other school leaders into a rush to hire interim replacements before Sept. 7, opening day.

Faced with another last-minute rug-pulling, Mr. Cash reacted strongly yesterday, expressing surprise at the tone and the timing of the Island Transport letter.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's a contract and I expect it to be fulfilled," he told the Gazette. "Kids will be transported safely and on time this year whatever we have to do."

Mr. Cash also described a mixed relationship with Island Transport, citing "amicable relations" with the company and praising their safety record while also acknowledging previous tensions over the contract.

This is not the first time that an irritated Island Transport company has come to the brink of halting student transportation, under a contract worth just over $1 million a year.

A little more than a year ago in June, Mr. Dario threatened to suspend bus service in the middle of a school day unless the regional high school and up-Island regional school district paid his company more than $100,000 for transportation of special needs students.

School officials disputed the charge but paid it anyway, ensuring the buses would run. But Mr. Cash's comments at that time signaled a "divorce" in the making, while saying that Island Transport was holding schoolchildren hostage.

Mr. Cash subsequently directed his business manager to analyze the cost of the schools taking over the bus operation and the possibility of finding a new bus company to do the job.

Now, relations between Island Transport and Vineyard schools are at a breaking point. Mr. Dario's letter offered no room for negotiation and made no demands on the schools that would make the company reconsider its decision.

Under a complicated arrangement, the schools own the 22 buses in the fleet but lease them to Island Transport, which then agrees to maintain the buses, garage them and hire the drivers.

Ms. Tierney said the schools paid under $1.5 million for the new buses back in 1999, and the lease paid by Island Transport to the schools covers the loan payments for the bus purchase.

The Vineyard schools - all but the Edgartown School, which operates its own bus system - then pay Island Transport a little more than $1 million a year for the busing service.

While the letter cited problems with contractual obligations, Mr. Dario, along with his son Scott Dario, vice-president of Island Transport spoke to the Gazette yesterday and aimed much of their dissatisfaction at Mr. Cash.

On the topic of safety concerns, Scott Dario criticized Mr. Cash for failing to cancel school on days when, he said, the roads were dangerously snow-covered, and also argued that the bus company was in a better position to decide whether roads were safely passable for school buses.

"On several occasions, our drivers set out and were very upset about conditions on the road. A few buses slipped off the road," said Scott Dario. "No one was hurt . . . but we really want to be the ones to make that decision."

James Dario alleged that school buses leased by Island Transport and then driven to the mainland by bus drivers hired by the schools are lacking the mandated safety checklist forms, called circle checks.

"I keep asking for the circle checks," said James Dario, "and I never get them."

As for charges of discrimination against bus drivers, the Darios offered an example of one of their bus drivers who was disciplined by Mr. Cash after swearing at two junior high students. By contrast, they claimed, no action was taken against the driver of a special needs bus after parents lodged complaints saying they had smelled alcohol on the driver's breath.

Finally, sensitive that Mr. Cash was investigating the possibility of hiring a new bus company or taking over the operation, the Darios criticized the schools for trying to lure bus drivers away from Island Transport.

"They've been pursuing this for the last three years," said Scott Dario. "It's not very amicable for them, behind our back trying to recruit drivers."

"There will have to be some real fundamental changes to ever see us turning back again," he added. "We really have tried."

But Mr. Cash, who declined to comment on the specifics of the letter, characterized a more silent relationship.

"I have not heard from Jack Dario since the last time he used a similar type of tactic," he said. "All of these allegations is the first I've heard of any of them."

James Dario's letter depicted a grim scene: "It has taken such a short time for the present administration to destroy a relationship of more than 20 years between the school district and its student carrier."