School officials consider bus privatization study

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

MILLSTONE — School officials may go ahead with a study to determine whether it would be feasible to outsource the district’s school busing program, even though most Board of Education members are against privatization.

Superintendent William Setaro recommended that the board do the study so board members will be "armed with the facts."

"It’s the best thing for the drivers and all of us," he said.

It costs the district $1.78 million each year to maintain the buses, pay for fuel, and pay for drivers’ and aides’ salaries and benefits, said Board Secretary Brian Boyle.

Boyle recently contacted the Student Transportation of America (STA) for information about outsourcing the district’s regular routes.

STA estimated that it could save the district $386,000 annually in costs, he said.

But the decision to go ahead with the study did not sit well with many township bus drivers and their supporters, who also attended the meeting.

"My mom treats the kids on her bus like they are her own," said Nicole Helreigel, whose mother is a district bus driver. "This town is lucky to have a group of bus drivers like this."

Setaro said he had concerns with outsourcing drivers.

"From my circle of superintendents, any superintendent who has outsourced is looking to go back the other way. There’s control and the safety of the children. The [transportation] committee needs to do a full report. We have a great fleet of drivers now. If we can’t get drivers, we may have to look at some sort of outsourcing."

Board member Thomas Foley apologized for inadvertently excluding driver Dee Ziobrok, a member of the Transportation Committee, from a conference call in which the matter was discussed.

"Let’s not turn blind eyes to the situations in our district," Foley said. "We’ve had two drivers fired for failing drug tests. We had a smoke-filled bus, and the driver couldn’t open the emergency door."

Foley also noted an incident where a child struck his head when a bus stopped short.

"We don’t have an absolute squeaky clean situation," he said.

Board member Mary Ann Friedman said that if the district decides to outsource, there is "no going back."

"We could never afford to buy back the buses," she said. "Did the committee contact districts that have already outsourced?"

Boyle said the district had not yet talked to other school districts, but that Hamilton and Lawrence townships had outsourced their busing programs for years.

Mayor Nancy Grbelja gave the board the names of several school officials working in districts that have outsourced. Piscataway, Grbelja said, has "lived to regret" the sale of its fleet.

"Woodbridge outsourced some of its runs and now has bought them all back," she said. "Bus companies don’t only service one district. Buses often arrive late, and with early closings, you have to compete with other school districts as to the availability of buses.

Since outsourced drivers are not district employees, any discipline must go through another party, the mayor said.

"There’s a revolving door of people coming in," Grbelja said. "You never know who your children are on the bus with."

Mark Abramson, a New Jersey Education Association official, told the board that STA’s figures were premature.

"You need to look at the actual runs and what they provide to you. Until you do that, $386,000 is fictitious."

Board member Paula Kinsey opposes outsourcing.

"I don’t think any amount of money is worth the safety of our children. I trust our drivers."