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Pittsfield Set to Make Final Payment For School Buses
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
03:43AM / Friday, March 30, 2018
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Soon the School Department will take another look at its transportation options.
 
The city currently owns and operates its own bus fleet. With the final payment being made this upcoming fiscal year, school officials this is the time to start planning for either purchasing new buses in a few years or opt out of the transportation business altogether.
 
"As we're heading into Year 5, we are definitely at a point where we should be considering the full range of options," Superintendent Jason McCandless said.
 
The city has been backpedaling with its bus management for years. In the 1990s, the state shut down the city's buses because they were in such poor condition. An emergency contract with a transportation provider had to be signed ensure children were getting to school.
 
In 1993, the city bought a full bus fleet and then replaced it in 2004 when there were constant breakdowns. Those buses were borrowed on a long-term schedule and, in 2014, when the fleet was breaking down, the city still owed $1.5 million.
 
That remaining amount led to lengthy and tense discussions on the City Council. At the time the $2.7 million borrowing request first failed to receive the supermajority needed from the City Council at first but passed on a second vote. The debt for those buses was agreed to be charged to the School Department's budget instead of the city's debt service line on the city's side of the ledger.
 
"I can't even say this is a little unusual. It is very unusual,"  Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said on Wednesday of that type of an agreement.
 
McCandless said he'd like to develop a plan to avoid getting to a point when the buses are again breaking down on the highway and emergency measures need to be passed.
 
"We're certainly in much better shape to deal with this now. When I first came in, we were justing getting this squared away," McCandless said. "This gives us an opportunity to get ahead and not be reacting to a broken down bus fleet."
 
Now that the buses are paid off, the department will likely have a consultant do an analysis of the system and help determine the city's next course of action. He said ideally buses are replaced about every seven years.
 
A study was done in 2004 that showed it to be more cost-effective for the city to own and operate its own fleet. And the study showed that it was more advantageous for the city to purchase the fleet all at once rather than replacing a few buses each year because of better purchasing prices, higher trade-in value, and the ability to keep spare parts all of the same year on hand.
 
"It is more cost effective to trade in all of your buses and have all new buses," Behnke said.
 
The next study will likely review at those options, assess ridership, routes, identify the ideal times for a trade in and make yet another recommendation.
 
School Committee member William Cameron cautioned against contracting with a bus company for transportation. He said there is no "competitive market" for busing companies in the Berkshires and that bus drivers for a public system cannot disrupt the school day with a strike.
 
"I would have concerns going into any kind of discussions over privatization for the reason that, it is illegal for public employees to strike in the commonwealth. It is not illegal for private employees to strike," Cameron said.
 
McCandless agreed with the lack of competition. He said when he worked in South County all of the schools bid their transportation together in hopes to find competitive pricing but still only received one bid.
 
School Committee member Daniel Elias added that the bus drivers are often Pittsfield natives who truly care for the children they drive. He said that can't be ensured by a private company.
 
Ultimately, school administrators hope to have a plan so they know what, if anything, the schools should set aside in their budget in the coming years.
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