Niagara Gazette

February 3, 2014

Voters set to decide fate of Niagara-Wheatfield bus plan

By Timothy Chipp timothy.chipp@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — After a month of discussing transportation needs, Niagara-Wheatfield voters will make a decision whether to spend up to $500,000 on new buses.

Polls open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the adult learning center of the district’s high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston. It’s necessary in order to allow the school board to make the purchase, something the district hasn’t been asked to perform since May 2011.

“This is something district needs,” board President Steve Sabo said. “If we want to continue to safely transport our students to school, and not worry about being late or having them stranded because a bus breaks down, this is one step to ensuring that happens.”

The district plans on buying four large, 60-passenger buses and one smaller bus if voters approve.

If given the go-ahead, the vote would help the district establish a replacement schedule for its fleet of 70, taking old buses out of service in favor of new vehicles. Currently, the district has more than a dozen buses 10 years old or greater, which Superintendent Lynn Fusco said has led to $100,000 spending towards repairs through the first four months of the school year and $265,000 in 2012-13.

A replacement plan would allow the district to reinvest all aid it receives on the purchases of new buses on the subsequent purchases of the next set of vehicles, essentially creating a roll-over with each new purchase funding additional buses. The idea, according to district leaders, is to limit the impact on taxpayers as much as possible.

The school board had a debate in December before deciding to purchase on whether to buy or lease the buses. Leasing came at a much reduced cost — Business Manager Allison Brady leasing the same number of buses would come to less than $200,000 — but would require the district return the vehicles after the lease term is up and would cause the district to either lease or buy twice as many buses at the time.

It brought the board to a consensus in favor of purchasing outright.

Tuesday’s decision, Sabo said, will also have no impact on the property tax residents and businesses pay each year. The money for the purchase is being taken from the district’s cash reserves gained from underspending the 2012-13 budget by more than $1 million.

There won’t be any borrowing or increase in taxes due to the vote’s outcome, he said.

“People have to understand they’re just authorizing us to spend the money,” Sabo said. “This isn’t a vote about taxes, as much as they think it is. We have that money in reserve.”

While there’s concern over the future of the bus fleet, some residents have wondered out loud at recent school board meetings and on the Internet about the option to privatize the district’s transportation department to reduce costs to taxpayers.

The district funded a study in October 2012 by Transportation Advisory Services to explore the possibility. In June 2013, TAS President Mark Walsh addressed the board with his findings, recommending the district not relinquish control of its school bus fleet to an outside company.

At the time, Walsh cited a requirement the district negotiate a buyout of the school-related personnel union contract — including paying lump sums for any sick days, holidays, vacation and retirement benefits, as well as any lawyer fees — as a primary reason to avoid contracting out a service the district provides. He also said it could take anywhere from a year to 18 months before any sort of contract could even be bid on by private companies.

“As an outsider, it doesn’t matter to me,” Walsh said June 5. “But if you’re competitive, stay that way. It’s important to realize, the way the state operates right now, your aid is set at 77.1 percent. All of the benefit costs of a buyout are non-aidable expenses. And you would have to terminate all employees. They’d be eligible for unemployment, which you’d have to pay.”

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.