Newtown's Owner-Operators and All-Star Transportation made their best case to the Board of Education Saturday morning, offering two different portraits of a school bus service provider.
The owner-operators were the first to present at the meeting, held in Newtown High School, using their time to detail their years of service from when busing began in Newtown many generations ago to the present day, including highlighting the times they were called to service during emergencies and at community events.
“We are extremely accessible because we are able to be contacted at our homes and cell phones,” Beth Koschel said. “Our owner operators are very involved in our community.”
Each owner-operator owns and maintains his or her bus. Each must drive at least 67-percent of the time and a majority have more than 10 years of experience, according to the presentation.
“All of our drivers both subs and owner operators are CPR and first aid certified,” Koschel said. “For new drivers, before they go for testing they have 40 plus hours of training both in the bus, classroom, videos. And then when your license is due we have 10 plus hours of proficiency testing.“
All drivers also are evaluated annually by two trainers who are certified in bus training, drug and alcohol supervisor training and safety training and evaluation, according to the presentation.
While the owner-operators have a high percentage of out-of-service violations compared to All-Star, the group said the violations have never led to a disruption to the school transportation system and that a certified school bus mechanic can be made available during the inspection if necessary to make immediate repairs. A spare bus also is available if necessary, according to the presentation.
The owner operators utilize a garage maintained by MTM, a private and separate bus company headed up by owner-operators. Repairs and maintenance work is done at the MTM garage and other area shops, according to the owner-operators.
Another feature of the owner-operator system is that they are active members of the community, and so can react to townwide emergencies if necessary.
For instance, an owner-operator was on standby at the Garner Correctional Institution on a Saturday during the 1993 prison riot for more than eight hours. Owner operators also have responded to pile-ups on Interstate 84 to help with transporting people, to evacuations at schools in connection to bomb threats and other incidents and to community events, such as the Relay for Life when lightning storms threatened participants with no nearby shelter to seek.
The group also has participated in numerous nonprofit events, such as helping with food donations and church events.
The owner-operators also were asked about the possibility of pay freezes. The group voluntarily proposed that drivers take a pay freeze in 2008-09, though the following year, their salaries increased by 4.5-percent to return to their normal rates.
“Are you willing to do that in future?” board member Debbie Leidlein asked Koschel.
“I believe as taxpayers we’re always looking for tax savings areas,” Koschel replied. “We have always been willing to work when approached to do what we can do to help.”
For instance, in 2007, when buses were overcrowded, owner operators helped re-route buses to alleviate the issue. Koschel said that there was more re-routing work that could be done that could eliminate the use of a bus.
All-Star Transportation was the second to present. Among the differences between the owner-operators and All-Star was price. All-Star is seeking a contract worth a total of $10.2 million spread across five years, which is about $1.5 million less than the bid submitted by the owner operators.
John Dufour, one of three owners in the family run business, said the company would purchase all new 2013 Blue Bird Vision school buses.
“We believe it is the best bus on the market,” he said of the model. “Our drivers love this bus. Our mechanics love this bus.”
The buses run on diesel fuel, and also uses a fuel additive called diesel exhaust fluid, which All-Star will provide, and helps the vehicle run smoothly, according to All-Star.
“They are the cleanest most environmentally friendly buses,” Dufour said.
The company also has one of the lowest out-of-service violation rates. Dufour said the company rotates out its fleet, typically after five years, buying a new one and reselling the old one. While the company had problems in Oxford last year in starting up its buses in the cold, Dufour said that was because Oxford mandated use of biofuel, which froze up in the freezing temperatures.
Newtown doesn't have that requirement so he said he does not anticipate problems, particularly if the buses are warmed up properly in the morning.
Each Blue Bird Vision bus holds 77 passengers, and as a result are longer than typical, though Dufour said the company has had no problems navigating the vehicles in narrow roads of neighboring communities, such as New Milford and Brookfield where the company operates.
Dufour said the company will look to buy property in Newtown where the vehicles would be parked. The company also would give hiring preference to existing Newtown bus drivers and residents.
The company gives its drivers paid vacation and sick time, though the job is clearly a part-time one, which comes with no medical benefits, Dufour said.
“No one in our business is able to do that,” he said of medical benefits. “It’s unaffordable.”
About half of the company’s drivers have 10 years or more of experience, according to All-Star. In New Milford, all of the drivers live in the community, and while turnover is dependent on the economy, they have roughly about 5-percent turnover in that town, company representatives said.
“Many of our drivers start as housewives and moms that can’t go to work because of daycare or other issues or whatever,” Dufour said. “They start it, they like it and they do it for 30 years. Sometimes that doesn’t work if their life changes, they get divorced.”
In addition, the economy has kept turnover at an all-time low, he said.
Drivers have unionized in some areas where All-Star has operated, and in one case, the union did hold a strike in New Milford, but Dufour said that union was subsequently de-certified at the request of the drivers.
He said there was a possibility that if All-Star were to operate in Newtown, the drivers might unionize. At the same time, while the company could not cover the routes in a larger New Milford where the strike did lead to one day without buses, the company would likely be able to cover the routes in Newtown because there were about half as many, Dufour said.
“We could not cover 60 routes but we can cover 30,” he said.
Also asked about whether the company would be willing to work with the town in times of financial difficulties, Dufour said that was a possibility, giving as an example the possibility that All-Star would be willing to freeze costs for one year or other measures in return for a longer contract period or some other exchange.
“We will be as creative as the town wants to be,” he said.
The company also participates in community events, and during emergency situations, would be willing to dispatch drivers to help, Dufour said. The company intends to hire a contract manager who would be based full-time in Newtown and it also would plan to have a dispatch center in town where people could call and talk to a person, Dufour said.
While the presentation featured questions from education board members, no public participation was allowed, although Chairman Bill Hart said that in hindsight, the board should have made allowances for written questions.
A few dozen people were in attendance at the meeting, and it was clear the majority were in favor of the owner-operators, who were given ample applause after their presentation, in contrast to All-Star representatives, who received scant applause.
Clarification: Repairs and maintenance work is done at the MTM garage as well as shops in the area, according to the owner-operators. An earlier version of this article did not mention the other shops.