Hartford Votes to Contract Buses

Hartford — Parents questioned the School Board’s move to switch from an in-house bus service to a contracted company Wednesday night, saying the district’s choice of Butler’s Bus Service was questionable given the recent alcohol-related charges against two of its bus drivers.

“It is very concerning that this happened once ... but twice; that is too many times,” Nicole Potter, a Hartford mother of four, said at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting where board members voted unanimously to hire Butler’s Bus Service. “As a mother, it is not OK and not acceptable.”

“If there are questions in general with the company, DUI or not, why do we have this company on the table?” asked Hartford resident Michelle Stanley, a mother of five.

School officials said, though, a recent policy change by Butler’s Bus Service that imposes stricter hiring standards would help prevent similar situations from happening. The company’s new policy states that drivers with a past DUI charge will not be hired by the bus company, said Hartford Finance Director Jim Vezina, who said he has been in contact with the bus company’s vice president.

“It is very black and white,” Vezina said. “Butler is saying there will be no drivers with a DUI at anytime in their past history that will be driving for them.”

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said Butler’s new policy is more strict than the standards the school currently imposes on its drivers. The district requires a background check that goes back two years.

The School Board voted 4-0 Wednesday night — with Chairman Kevin Christie abstaining — to sign an eight-year, $5.6 million contract with Butler’s Bus Service.

The eight-year contract would start out with an annual savings of more than $120,000. The contract for 2014-15 is $640,000, compared to the $764,000 the district would have paid if it maintained its own service, Vezina said.

The amount the district will pay Butler’s Bus Service will go up 2.5 percent each year over the course of the contract. In its final year, the district will pay $760,759.

Under the agreement, Butler’s Bus Service also plans to purchase Hartford’s existing bus fleet for $445,200.

The school district has been operating its own buses, paying for fuel, drivers and maintenance costs. School Board Member Peter Merrill said all of those costs are factored into the contract. Regardless of whether fuel costs rise, Merrill said a provision in the contract states the district would not be charged more.

Butler’s Bus Service will provide the district with 16 vehicles ranging from 77 passenger buses to vans. Under the contract, there is a mileage limit of 175,000 miles per year for the fleet, with the option to purchase more miles and add or subtract the number of buses in the fleet.

Merrill said school officials decided to go with Butler’s Bus Service because the company put forth the lowest bid, didn’t include “a kicker” if there was a price increase in fuel, and “the protections” under the contract reduced liability to the district.

“They made the best offer,” Merrill said.

School Board member Paul Keane and Merrill served on a subcommittee that looked at proposals from three different companies, one being Butler’s Bus Service. First Student and Student Transportation of America also inquired, but First Student didn’t enter a “bid” and Student Transportation of America “was significantly higher than Butler’s Bus Service,” Merrill said.

Wednesday night’s discussion touched on whether Hartford’s current bus drivers would be hired by Butler’s Bus Service.

Merrill said the bus company has committed to giving “preference” to hiring Hartford’s drivers. They would have to pass the same background checks and drug tests.

Residents asked whether the Hartford drivers hired by Butler’s will be given the same bus route.

“My assumption is they will try to put the drivers into the routes they are normally in,” Merrill said, though there is no provision in the contract binding Bulter’s Bus Service to that.

Residents asked what would happen if the bus service went out of business . If that happened, Merrill said, the contract states Hartford gets to keep all of the buses it is contracted for.

Hartford bus driver Mike Scelza, who often attends School Board meetings, said Wednesday night that he was displeased with the switch.

Emo Chynoweth, vice president of Butler’s Bus Service, didn’t return requests for comment.

There have been two incidents in the past seven months where Butler’s Bus Service drivers were arrested on alcohol-related charges. Both drivers’ blood alcohol content registered over the legal limit for operating a school bus, which is .02.

The bus company fired Kent Quillia, 59, of Hartford, when a test showed his blood alcohol level was 0.19 shortly after driving students from Hartford to Bethel on Sept. 20. Quillia pleaded guilty on Feb. 5 to gross negligent operation of a vehicle and reckless endangerment charges. He is prohibited from drinking alcohol or driving a commercial vehicle for two years and was given 30 days on a work crew.

More recently, Carl H. Lupton, 57, of Bethel, pleaded not guilty on April 1 to a charge of driving under the influence and a misdemeanor charge of child cruelty — placing children under the age of 10 in danger.

Records show Lupton had a previous DUI conviction from 2006.

Authorities said he consumed alcohol on the evening of March 23, and his blood alcohol content registered .04 the following morning — shortly after he dropped students off at South Royalton School. He, too, was fired from the company.

Those incidents aside, Merrill — a lawyer — said he feels the district is safe with the provisions in place under the contract.

“I think the contract provides a lot of protection to us,” Merrill said.

Vezina felt the same sense of security under the contract.

“If we say jump, they have to jump,” Vezina said. “We are in the driver’s seat.”

J ordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.