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First Stop on the School Bus Tour

Posted on 08 January 2010

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While we’re tempted to urge the Sag Harbor School District to “get on the bus” and support a proposal that could save millions in transportation expenses, we instead urge them to approach the subject with cautious optimism.

The local board of education heard from its outgoing business manager, Len Bernard, on Monday night about the possibility of saving more than $6 million over the next 12 years if the district chose to pull away from the deal it has with Montauk Bus Company, from which it has outsourced its bus service for more than a decade. Instead, suggested Bernard, the district could pay about $1.6 million and buy a whole fleet of busses and vans of their own. They could hire drivers and take over the local routes themselves. The savings, at least on paper, are significant. Bernard had suggested last year that the district buy a small bus and van to take care of its extracurricular activities — which it did — and it appears the district will save about $250,000 in the process.

That’s pretty attractive.

But, there is plenty of room for headaches, if the district chooses to get into the bus business.

We think immediately about maintenance and scheduling and the layer of administration that creates. Granted, the rough numbers Bernard offered included estimates for service and personnel, but we wonder how deeply the district wants to get into the transportation business. Is the neighborhood ready to have that many buses across from their properties

We also wonder about future issues that may not be anticipated. While the busses may wind up living in a Division and Grand Street lot, is the neighborhood prepared for this new venture?

But every new venture has its potential for problems, and we’re not ready to say these are insurmountable. The prospect of millions in savings is seductive and we believe there are other possibilities on the plus side, not the least of which is it puts the local district in charge of its own destiny. Rather than dealing with an outside corporation that may have its own issues, and has obligations with other districts, Sag Harbor would have the luxury of making schedules and plans unfettered by those of others. We wonder: can the busses run more convenient routes?

And, we presume, the district would be purchasing more modern, efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles — a plus for those with a green leaning.

The proposal also creates the opportunity for the district to look at how it gets students to and from the school in a much broader way. We’ve lobbied for the district and the village to look more closely at a Safe Routes to School program and feel, if the school were to start in the transportation business, it would be a good time to look at how vehicles of six wheels, four wheels and two wheels — not to mention us two-leggers — can best work together.

And finally, if the district decided to move forward with this, we would urge them to clearly communicate the value of the plan. The board has recently been criticized for not effectively getting the message out about the recent bond proposed to fund several million dollars of needed maintenance work and a questioanble parking plan. The vote failed badly with a poor turnout at the polls and even board members themselves conceded they could have done a better job making their case. With a new transportation idea on the table, we hope the board and the public are willing to cultivate a thorough discussion.

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