Every tax is a pay cut.  Every tax cut is a pay raise.
Citizens for Limited Taxation

Managing mobility Monday, October 3, 2005
Charlie Breitrose 508-626-4407 Metrowest Daily News
The big yellow buses may look the same, but the way each community manages those vehicles can be very different.

Most towns lease the buses from private companies and leave the fueling, maintenance and even the driving up to them.  A few towns, including Framingham, hire the drivers but lease the vehicles from a company; a small number of towns buy their buses and have their own people driving them.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, whether monetary or loyalty of the folks dropping the students at school.

Framingham's 5-year bus contract ends this year, and the district will be looking for bids for the next one.  In recent times, this decision has brought up the issue of whether to privatize the town's bus drivers, as is done in many towns.

"We say (to the companies) in the bid, please bid two different ways: just the buses, and then second part would be a lease of buses and when they supply the drivers," said David Proule, business manager for Framingham schools.  "I'll bring this up to superintendent and with the School Committee, all these bids, and they decide."

Last time the town considered the bus contract, after reviewing the two options, they ended up looking very similar.

"I don't think there was much of a difference five years ago," Proule said.  "We felt comfortable keeping own drivers."

This year, the lease of the buses from First Student Inc. costs $1,159,465 for the 88 buses used by the town, Proule said, but a bus fee raises $250,000, so cost to the town is $909,465.  That money provides not just the buses, but also the fuel, maintenance and insurance.

Per day, the district pays $103 for the large, 71-passenger buses and $99 a day for the half-size buses.

The 93 drivers, including the director of transportation, earn a total of $1,877,252 in salaries, Proule said.  Some drivers work four hours and some work six hours, Proule said, and this year their hourly wage runs from $15.73 to $17.89.

The district also budgeted $293,483 this year for overtime, substitute drivers and vacations, Proule said.  As town employees, the drivers also earn health care and other benefits, but that is paid by the town.

While cost is a factor when making the choice, Proule said the service also comes into it.

"A lot of time, people like to look at just cost, but then the next step look at other things," Proule said.  "We have our own drivers, most live in community and the kids like them."

The Milford public schools will also be signing a new contract for next school year.  The town will pay about $900,000 to Vendetti Motors of Franklin this year for the school bus service, which includes the drivers, said Len Morcone, director of transportation in Milford.

The town leases 23 buses, including 19 large buses and four smaller vehicles, including one that can handle wheelchairs.

"The rate is not bad, about $215 a day per bus," Morcone said, adding that price includes the cost of the drivers.

As far as he knows, Morcone said Milford has always let the bus company handle the hiring of the drivers.

"No, we never had own drivers, even when I was a kid," said Morcone, who grew up in town.  "I don't know why.  One of the reasons, I assume, is if you have them work for you, you have to pay the benefits."

Although they do not hire them, Morcone said the district has had good luck keeping drivers in town.

"We're fortunate.  A lot of the drivers have been in service of the Milford schools of for year -- probably some have been working with us for 20 years," Morcone said.

When the contract changes to a different company, Morcone said, it still must hire drivers and often go with the same drivers because they know the town and the children.

David King, business manager for the Waltham schools, said it makes financial sense to hire a bus company to handle the buses and the maintenance.

"Personally, I think it is more efficient to have a private company run the buses," King said.  "The city of Waltham gives, among other things, a very good benefits package, which would be very expensive to give to 30 bus drivers."

Because they would be city employees, King said, it would also be more difficult for the district to fire a driver.

Waltham has five contracts to handle the large buses as well as smaller buses for special needs students, King said.  The total transportation budget is $2.7 million, King said, and the largest amount goes to Eastern Bus Co. of Somerville, which gets about $1.3 million, King said, to pay for 21 full-size buses and five mini-buses.

King has been satisfied with the service provided by Eastern, which started this fall.  The previous company, Laidlaw, also served the city well, he said.

Natick's bus contract has been with Michael J. Connolly and Sons Inc. of Dover since the 1970s, said Superintendent Jim Connolly (no relation to the bus company).

The district runs 20 buses, and pays $192 a day, Connolly said.  The total transportation budget is $691,000 a year, and they transport 2,629 students each day.

Natick is not large enough to run its own buses, Connolly said.

"It's difficult to develop an economy of scale to have own maintenance staff and everything," Connolly said.

Aside from the cost of running the buses, the district would have to deal with the bureaucracy, said Marlborough Assistant Superintendent James Jolicoeur.

"I think the reason (Marlborough does not have its own buses) would primarily be the cost of maintenance our own fleet of buses as well as the additional work to recruit and maintain a group of drivers," Jolicoeur said.  "(First Student) pretty much takes care of things.  There are so many compliance issues and day to day issues."

This year, Marlborough will pay $963,000 for 25 buses that go to the Marlborough schools, a few private schools and the new charter high school.

Districts have to weigh the pros and cons of privatizing buses and drivers, said Irwin Blumer, a professor at Boston College who was superintendent of schools in Concord and Newton.

"I know Framingham has had its own drivers for years," Blumer said.  "The benefits are that you get to choose who's driving the buses.  When I was in Newton, they went out to bid for buses and drivers every three to five years.  We didn't have control who drove the buses."

When he was in Concord, Blumer said, the district not only hired its drivers but also bought the buses.  It still does, according to the Concord director of transportation Joanne Pedato.

If done right, Blumer said, purchasing buses can save money.

"The benefit we found there was we maintained them could keep them 10-12 years," Blumer said.  "While we had to do our own maintenance, it would cost less if we owned them."

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