The Board of Education will invite the four bus contract finalists to give a public presentation of their services, show off their buses and meet with the public prior to the board deciding whom to award the contract.
“We want to see all of these people, because ultimately, the services will be done by the people,” education board Chairman Bill Hart said at Tuesday's meeting at the Municipal Center.
The board has to make a decision on the bus contract before the end of August. But before it does, the board will schedule a two hour meeting during which all of the bidders will be asked to attend and give a 15-minute presentation on their operation and answer questions from board members.
The company also will be asked to bring bus drivers and other representatives who can meet with the public prior to the meeting. Board member Andy Buzzi said the board should recommend the bidders bring their buses as well as drivers so the public has a chance to assess the equipment and talk to the personnel.
“And then we can talk about it,” Buzzi said of what they find.
The meeting could potentially be scheduled for a weekend to provide parents an opportunity to attend, officials said.
First Student, All-Star Transportation, DATTCO and Newtown Owner-Operators are the four finalists. MTM, which had been the lowest bidder, apparently has dropped out of the process, officials said.
The awarding of the school bus contract has been a long-running controversy in town with dozens of parents coming before the Board of Education to ask the district retain its owner-operator system, which has been in place in Newtown for 70 years.
Supporters said the drivers know the town, and all of its dirt roads and quirks, as well as the students and their families, adding the additional level of service is worth added expense.
At the moment, the owner operators, whose contracts are set to expire next year, are the highest bidder. Two other companies that originally submitted bids came in higher but those firms are no longer considered in contention.
In either case, district Business Manager Ron Bienkowski said by putting the contract out to bid, Newtown can expect to save between $400,000 and $1.9 million during the term of a five-year contract, with savings on the lower end based on the Owner-Operators’ bid, and the higher end based on All-Star Transportation.
Pressures on the school system to find areas to save money are the primary reason for evaluating these bus bids, Bienkowski said.
The board also reviewed out-of-service reports from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which showed All Star with a low out-of-service percentage during Sept. 1, 2009 and Oct. 31, 2010 with one vehicle taken out of service out of 539 inspections. DATTCO had 85 out-of-service violation out of 677 inspections while First Student had 650 out of 2,708, according to the data presented.
DMV records for school bus companies and district-run operations are available online but individual owner-operators inspections are not.
Bienkowski was accompanied at the meeting by Bert Hughes, the transportation director for Education Connections. The two, along with board member Keith Alexander and town Finance Director Bob Tait and Director of Pupil Services Michael Regan, serve on a committee tasked with evaluating the bids.
The committee apparently also reviewed a database maintained by the Hartford Courant newspaper that listed DMV violations in 2009, which showed All Star with one out-of-service violation out of 430 buses; First Student with 1,133 out of 2,102; DATTCO with 85 out of 677; and the Owner-Operators with 25 out of 32, according to the data presented at the meeting.
Bienkowski said he obtained the information for the owner operators by typing in each bus’s unique identifier into the Courant’s online database. For 2010 information, Bienkowski said he reviewed records at the BOE transportation department, which were only available for 26 buses in 2010, and placed the number of violations at 14.
Correction: The violations cited in the presentation as originating from the Hartford Courant specifically related to out-of-service violations. An earlier version of this article did not specify them as being this type of violation.