School Boards Scramble to Cover Transportation in Time for Opening Day

By RACHEL KOVAC

Uncertainty surrounding school transportation ran down to the wire this week, with a flurry of emergency meetings that resulted in a patched together plan to carry Vineyard children to school.

Bussing on the first day of school yesterday went without a hitch, but the untested system - which calls for the school district to manage bussing itself for six weeks - leaves many unanswered questions for bus drivers, school leaders and taxpayers.

The decision came late Tuesday night at an emergency meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district committee and the up-Island regional school committee. Committee members also called for developing a long-term transportation plan with help from an outside consultant.

A letter was sent to parents yesterday asking for their cooperation and patience while the situation is resolved.

Last Friday MV Coachlines abruptly pulled out of its transportation contract with the Island school district after a heated labor dispute with bus drivers. Company president Edward W. Pigman said he could not find enough drivers willing to work for him to fulfill his contract.

On Tuesday, with freshmen needing transportation for orientation the next day and school officially beginning for all students Thursday, the school committees had two options - to award the contract to the tour bus company Island Transport or take on the responsibility themselves.

On the recommendation of a transportation subcommittee, the two committees voted 10 to one to hand over management to Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss. For their part, the bus drivers agreed to work for the school for six weeks under the same pay scale and running the same routes as last year.

"Basically for six weeks we've got to keep things afloat and create a better system," Mr. Weiss told school committee members. "There's still a matter of I've got to trust the drivers and they've got to trust me."

School bus drivers met with Mr. Weiss Tuesday afternoon where he laid out the situation, telling them there were only two options: work for the school or school will be delayed.

Mr. Weiss told drivers that after six weeks they would be given a raise, retroactive to the start of school. He also said he expected them to be an integral part of the planning process.

"I hope someone [a consultant] will be here next week," he said. "It will be no one who has been involved with what has transpired over the last few years."

School transportation has been unsettled on the Vineyard for the last several years. The operator Island Transport Inc. had held the bussing contract for more than 20 years prior to last fall. But heading into the final year of its five-year contract, a public dispute over autonomy and finances caused the school district to sever its ties with the Oak Bluffs company.

Then weeks before the start of school last year, former schools superintendent Kriner Cash brokered a deal to hire the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) to maintain the buses and MV Coachlines to manage and operate them.

MV Coachlines was awarded a second, one-year contract this summer. But in August bus drivers met with school committee members to say they would not work for MV Coachlines because of unpaid bonuses, inhospitable working conditions, reduced routes and distrust of Mr. Pigman.

At the Tuesday meeting, the drivers were hesitant to sign on right away, raising concerns about salaries, management and the need to find a long-term solution to address flaws in the transportation system.

"Take it on faith," Mr. Weiss told drivers. "If we work together I think we can put in place all that is going to happen. Yes, I'm asking you to trust me. I think in the long run it will be better for you."

Under the six-week plan, Mr. Weiss along with Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, and Jim Maseda, a longtime bus driver and coordinator for athletic games and field trips, will manage the busses. If a bus breaks down on the side of the road Mr. Maseda will be behind the radio. Problems with children or with drivers will go to Mr. Weiss.

Hours later on Tuesday, school leaders expressed their own reservations about the plan in a meeting with Mr. Weiss, questioning the legal and financial implications of the decision to assume management.

The first to speak was David Morris, a member of the transportation subcommittee and a representative from Oak Bluffs, who said that over the weekend he had learned more about the issue and thought the committees were legally obligated to award the contract to Island Transport, the second bidder.

Mr. Weiss said the move was allowed because school leaders had a legitimate reason for not awarding the contract to Island Transport, namely that they wanted to manage the busses themselves.

However, the school committees never voted not to award the contract to Island Transport. Scott Dario, one of the owners of Island Transport, said he is looking into the legal ramifications.

Roxanne Ackerman, a member of the up-Island school committee, questioned how much the outside consultant will cost the schools, reminding fellow committee members that last year they were slammed with a $35,000 consulting fee from MV Coachlines.

Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a member of the up-Island school committee and the lone dissenting vote, questioned the loss of the lease money. "I think getting into the transportation business is a big mistake," Mr. Manter said. "I'm sure it's going to cost more money."

Under the old contract system, the schools owned the busses and leased them to the companies, which brought in $350,000 for the up-Island school district each year. That money amounts to roughly 30 per cent of the up-Island district's annual budget, not taking into account the town assessments.

Mr. Manter wanted to know where his already financially fraught district would find more money, saying the issue needed to be resolved before any decisions were made. The up-Island district owns 10 busses and the high school owns 12. The busses were bought in 1999 and the lease money was used to pay the debt incurred from the purchase. According to Mrs. Tierney the last debt payment was made this summer.

There is also the issue of state reimbursement for school bus transportation, which will decrease under the new system.

"We will lose revenue," Mrs. Tierney said yesterday. "This is why we didn't want to do this. We had a lot of good financial things going on with the contracts."

Discussion circled around the financial implications awhile longer before the final vote was taken. Oak Bluffs school committee member Bob Tankard said they have six weeks to look at other options and make decisions.

"As school committee members we need to be apprised of things as they are happening," Mr. Tankard said. "This is strike two, and if we strike out again we have no one to blame but ourselves. We also need to be a little bit more open to suggestions."