Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, far left, and other school administrators at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck
Teachers Stacey Fowle and Ashley Moran discuss school buses at Monday’s meeting.

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The school district is changing bus companies.

The Board of Education on Monday voted unanimously, with five of its seven members present, to enter negotiations for a new contract with First Student Inc.

First Student was one of two transportation firms to submit bids for the new contract, which will span five years beginning July 1. The other vendor was DATTCO, which has served the district for well over two decades.

The estimated total five-year value for the base transportation services for First Student was $35,337,175.64, compared to $35,463,187.29 for DATTCO, according to documents presented to the board.

The First Student bid not only came in $126,011 cheaper than DATTCO, it provided more insurance coverage and would give the district a $1.5 million credit over five years for use of a district-provided bus lot.

DATTCO, according to Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo, provided no credit for using the bus lot, offered less coverage for primary and excessive sexual misconduct insurance and failed to submit a letter from its insurance carrier stating the minimum insurance limits required in the Request for Proposals would be met.

A full analysis of both bids was performed, according to Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, who along with Longo recommended First Student.

“We believe it’s the right choice for the district,” Scarice said.

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein called it a big change for the district.

The school board met for 90 minutes in executive session prior to its April 24 board meeting to consult with attorneys about the contract.

Officials from the New Britain-based DATTCO could not immediately be reached for comment.

First Student is based in Cincinnati, Ohio, but has school bus contracts with several school districts in the state, including Fairfield and Weston.

School bus problems prompt many complaints

Transportation has been a big issue over the past school year, locally and nationwide, as a lack of school bus drivers caused service disruptions with many students arriving late at school.

“It’s been a challenge for quite some time,” said Scarice.

Of all the emails and phone calls his office received this year, Scarice said transportation is the top concern. It is the first question raised when Scarice attends PTA meetings.

“It is also one of the topics the RTM and Board of Finance brings up,” Scarice said.

Cost is a concern as the district struggles to keep expenses down with rising enrollment.

Last fall, the district received a transportation study, conducted by First Student Consulting, a division of First Student, that suggested efficiencies could be achieved by updating routing software, adding staff, increasing times between bus runs and making schedule adjustments that could mean changing school starting times.

The recommendations are to be taken up with the eventual winner of the contract, Longo said before the meeting.

The buses will have all the same safety features as DATTCO buses, the board was told.

Longo said the contract is for five years instead of three because the RFP called for a new fleet of buses, some of which could be electric vehicles.

As for school bus drivers, Longo said it has been his experience that much of the existing workforce could end up working for the new provider.

The district this year has 51 routes, with 134 runs and 1,821 bus stops. Most buses make three runs each morning and afternoon to serve elementary and middle schools and the high school.

This year, there are 5,239 in-district students as well as two private schools that receive district transportation services.

During the public comment portion of the discussion, teachers Stacey Fowle and Ashley Moran both said they were glad to hear there were negotiations to include electric buses.

 The federal government has a goal of achieving 100 percent zero-emission buses by 2040.

“I hope that is baked into the planning,” said Fowle.

Antje Bakalov, a parent, warned the district that a full fleet of electric buses might not be such a good idea when conditions are very cold. She also expressed concern that the batteries created for the buses come from countries where workers are underpaid.

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.