Bus Owners Pledge to Deliver Students

But Superintendent Cash Has Doubts; ‘Unprofessional and Irresponsible,' He Says of Island Transport

By CHRIS BURRELL

One week after accusing Vineyard school leaders of destroying a 20-year business relationship, Island Transport vice president Scott Dario abruptly reversed gears yesterday, saying his bus company is now ready to honor its contract and roll the buses when school opens in just three weeks.

But the about-face gesture may be too late for the schools' top administrator.

Rather than welcoming news that Island Transport wants back in the game, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash expressed skepticism and resentment about Mr. Dario's change of mind.

"I doubt very seriously that the school committee would be interested in any such 180-degree turnabout. How can you trust it?" Mr. Cash told the Gazette.

Bus company president James (Jack) Dario Jr. sent Vineyard school committee members a blistering letter Aug. 2, charging them with causing serious safety concerns on the buses while announcing his intention to back out of the last year of a five-year contract to transport Vineyard schoolchildren.

Days later, Scott Dario demanded fundamental changes in the contract, calling for autonomy to decide snow days and discipline drivers and shift to a management model that would pay a $75,000 annual fee to Island Transport.

Yesterday, Scott Dario embraced the status quo, dropping all demands and threats but offering no explanation for his reversal.

"My father and I have talked in the last two days, and decided we'd love to run the school buses, go back to the way it was and fulfill our contractual agreement," he said.

"We're ready to go as the contract states and looking forward to the opportunity to serve the community," he added.

More than 1,500 public school students rely on the buses for a ride to and from school. Edgartown operates its own bus system and is not affected by the dispute between Island Transport and the rest of the Vineyard schools.

Scott Dario's announcement comes a day after receiving what school leaders described yesterday as a sternly-worded letter from their attorney, threatening legal action and liability for monetary damages if the bus company failed to meet the terms of the contract.

The All-Island school committee met Monday in closed session to talk solely about the dispute with Island Transport.

Mr. Cash said committee members voted unanimously with one abstention Tuesday to authorize the school's attorney to draft the letter. Neither Mr. Cash nor Mr. Dario would release a copy of the letter to the Gazette.

But it was clear yesterday that the schools had already begun contingency planning with the Vineyard Transit Authority, whose board members voted last Thursday to help the Vineyard schools fill any transportation gaps.

"If we're asked to do something, we will," VTA administrator Angela Grant said yesterday.

Headquartered at the airport business park, the transit authority depot houses 35 buses and vans and employs in-house mechanics and more than 70 bus drivers.

"We have the infrastructure," said Ms. Grant.

Mr. Cash would not comment on whether the schools might opt to contract the Vineyard Transit Authority, but he said he was "100 per cent confident" that school transportation service will be ready come Sept. 8.

Mr. Cash's critical comments showed just how deep the fracture is between the schools and Island Transport.

"This is the kind of unprofessional, irresponsible behavior I have had to suffer with for three straight years now," he said.

Ten days ago, the bus company wanted out, and now the owners want back in. Last year, Island Transport threatened to strand students at the end of a school day in June unless the schools agreed to pay the company roughly $100,000 in unpaid bills that school bookkeepers had questioned.

Mr. Cash, at the time, described the worsening relationship between schools and their transportation vendor as a divorce in the making.

Earlier this week, the rocky school bus situation had potentially created trouble for tomorrow's Chilmark Road Race.

Race organizer Hugh Weisman received a telephone call Wednesday morning from Island Transport's general manager Chad Metell, informing him that the buses he had reserved to ferry runners to the start-line on Middle road would not be coming.

It is understood that Island Transport had removed license plates from the 20 school buses in the fleet, essentially grounding the buses. Scott Dario would not comment on this action.

By yesterday morning, Mr. Weisman was told by Mr. Metell that Island Transport had reached a deal to borrow three buses from the Edgartown School and not leave runners in the lurch.

Mr. Metell told the Gazette that Island Transport will not charge the Chilmark Road Race for the service. In past years, the bus company has billed race organizers about $1,600 to transport runners.

The Vineyard schools own the buses and lease them to Island Transport for a fee of $365,000 a year.

The schools then pay Island Transport just over $1 million a year to operate the bus system and cover the payroll for drivers. They share the cost of insurance, fuel and maintenance.

By the time state funding is factored in, the Vineyard schools expect to pay $575,000 for transporting students.

By contrast, the Edgartown School will spend $56,000 next year for transportation. About 180 students there ride the bus every day, principal Ed Jerome said.