A school bus provided by Westport public schools’ new contractor, First Student.
/ Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — If Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice had his way, there would be a moratorium on town road projects the first few weeks of a new school year.

Scarice made the wishful comment as he told the Board of Education this week at least some school bus delays experienced as the new academic got underway are tied to “untenable” road construction in town. Those projects include a major state undertaking along Post Road East, which has a waterfall effect by causing congestion on intersecting roads, and the town’s crack-sealing maintenance on various streets.

“It feels like they’re doing asphalt on every road at the same time,” he said. “It’s been a significant issue.”

The impact has been worse than any of his three previous years in the district, the superintendent added. 

To mitigate the problems, the district is rerouting some bus runs, as well as working out other beginning-of-the-year bugs to reduce the number of students picked up and dropped off late.

It’s a work in progress, but getting better and, Scarice said, is much better than last year when a shortage of drivers led to route consolidation and some children not getting picked up at all.

That’s not helpful or reassuring for the parent whose child “didn’t get picked up today or got dropped off a half hour later … but as a system, up in the balcony, I can tell you we’re trending in the right direction. It is very encouraging where we are headed,” he said.

Scarice told board members they made the right decision by voting to switch to a new transportation provider.

This year, First Student Inc. replaced DATTCO, the former school bus contractor.

“They have been very, very visible. Very present,” said Scarice, adding he encountered some spare drivers one day who normally work for First Student in the Hartford region, who were sent to Westport in case they were needed as backup drivers.

Other hiccups

On the first day of school Aug. 29, there were significant delays tied to the decision to have buses parked in five school lots around town. First Student does not yet have a central lot to park its local fleet.

Drivers are being shuttled to buses from a central location so their cars don’t take up spaces at the schools where their buses are parked.

On the first day, the shuttle system did not factor in the time it would take for drivers to warm up vehicles and do safety checks. It led to delays that started with high school pickups and cascaded down to the elementary schools.

The second day, the shuttles started running earlier and things improved, the board was told.

The temporary authorization to park buses in school lots extends through Oct. 31. The district, Scarice said, is actively pursuing a permanent parking arrangement.

The district also is walking back on the date when new school buses will be put in service locally — something that was part of the contract with First Student. The new fleet was expected in October, but now its arrival may be close to December, Scarice said.

As such, the district’s use of a smart phone application that will give parents real-time information about busing issues or delays is being postponed until the new buses arrive. The old buses can’t handle the technology, Scarice said.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.