A school bus provided by Westport public schools’ new contractor, First Student.
A school bus provided by Westport public schools’ new contractor, First Student.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday voted to allow the school district an extension to park its homeless fleet of buses at schools.

It seemed a measure of mercy to the district and First Student, a nationwide busing provider, which recently wrested the longtime contract from DATTCO.

Since the swap, the new company and the school district have been spinning their wheels trying to secure a location to park the bus fleet.

The town needed site plan/special permit approval to continue parking buses at Long Lots Elementary School, Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools, and at Bedford Middle School. (For background about the extended parking arrangements at each of the schools, click here.)

The Board of Education, after decades of contracting with DATTCO for busing students to and from school, switched horses, awarding a $35.3 million, five-year bus contract to First Student. The First Student bid 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.

But DATTCO had a lot and facility behind the Mobil station off Post Road East, across from Playhouse Square, where the town’s school buses were parked for several decades. On weekday afternoons, the buses queuing up to park there were a traffic headache. That ended June 30.

And temporary arrangements allowing First Student to park buses at five of the town’s schools expired Oct. 31, requiring the P&Z to give official permission for another extension.

That traffic headache has been replaced with uncertainty about where First Student might someday park its big yellow buses.

“I don’t understand how Westport made a contract with a company that did not have plans for parking their buses,” said Nancy Barrer, who lives on North Pasture Road, near Staples High School. “I don’t expect you to answer that right now, but I just don’t get it.”

She had concerns about buses idling and their backup beepers for those living near the schools billeting the buses.

P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin said contracts were not in the purview of the commission, but summed up concerns from neighbors, P&Z staff and members in modifying the requests to park buses at the four schools.

Commission members broke out their red pens and scribbled some conditions before unanimously approving the requests, including, in good humor, requiring an end-of-year “report card” on efforts to secure permanent bus parking arrangements.

“Yeah, we want a report card,” said member Paul Lebowitz, who, as usual, had a list of questions.

Other conditions the commission agreed to included:

  • Providing neighbors of the schools with a cell phone number of a bus company or school administration official to be reached early morning or late afternoon hours.
  • Bus maintenance would not be permitted on school lots, but safety inspections would be.
  • A restatement of the state statute prohibiting vehicles’ idling for more than three minutes.
  • Recommending, when practicable, buses be backed into spaces in the afternoon, rather than backed out with beepers sounding in the morning.
  • At Coleytown Middle School, move the buses on weekends to the front parking lot to make way for soccer parking.
  • And limiting the bus parking extension to two years, or sooner, to the extent that construction impacts parking at one of the schools.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.