The Pittsfield City Council has approved a $2.7 million plan to trade in its current school buses and purchase a new fleet.
The city will trade in 52 buses and buy 43 new buses that the school district would own and operate. Superintendent Jason McCandless says fewer buses are needed because of decreasing student numbers. The proposal failed by one vote to get the necessary two-thirds majority at a council meeting two weeks ago. With Councilor Nick Caccamo abstaining because he works for the school district, Councilor Lisa Tully was the deciding factor. She changed her previous vote at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I was never against buying new school buses,” Tully said. “I felt very comfortable making that decision two weeks ago with the information that was given to me. I would have liked a comparison on leasing, privatizing, revolving and buying of buses.”
Tully said she used the additional two weeks to look at what other towns had done, leading to her change of heart. McCandless says the city has reached a critical point with its aging fleet and was doubtful it could secure the new buses if the decision was put off once again.
“Our baseball team was going to Minnechaug last week and [the bus] broke down on the Turnpike near Exit 7,” McCandless said. “We had to dispatch another bus to pick them up and a tow truck to bring that bus back to us. That’s the kind of thing that we’re going to start running into.”
The city still owes $1.5 million on a 12-year bond from its purchase of the current fleet nine years ago. The new five-year bond will add $560,000 to the school district budget each year. City councilors have discussed whether Pittsfield could lease buses or contract with a private company. McCandless says having your own buses presents the biggest bang for your buck especially when it comes to the quality of service for the 3,500 student riders. Mayor Dan Bianchi agrees.
“This was a brutal winter and we had little kids, six or seven years-old, who were picked up by a bus who normally would have been walking to school a half-mile of three-quarters of a mile,” Bianchi said. “That’s a very wonderful thing to be able to do given the flexibility of operating your own buses. You could not do that if you had a private contract.”
In addition, McCandless says the school district has brought on a consultant to do a one-month study of the fleet’s efficiency at a cost of $3,500. He says there is a waiting list of students who would pay to ride a bus, but their proximity to a school does not allow them to under current regulations. McCandless says the district charges those students about a dollar a day to ride a bus.
“So if we can generate some efficiencies in our routing and pickups and create space then that’s space for customers who actually pay to ride the bus,” McCandless said.
McCandless says the study will also give the district a jump start for the next time it looks at buying a new fleet. Councilors Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli maintained their no votes. Morandi cited additional costs for taxpayers, while Simonelli would like to see the study done first.
“I would encourage you to hold off on the buses this year, do the study and then if it’s warranted, next year come back and I would vote in favor,” said Simonelli.
The school district has knocked $90,000 in maintenance costs that had been used to service the aging fleet out of its upcoming budget.
Julia Sabourin was also approved as the city’s director of administrative services, replacing Mary McGinnis, who will return to Berkshire Health Systems after serving for one year as Mayor Bianchi’s top aide.