Westport's after-school bus service remains in limbo
Published 2:10 pm, Wednesday, August 20, 2014
The issue that left dozens of local students without transportation to after-school programs when the academic year starts next week remains unresolved, town officials said Wednesday.
As a result, parents and the managers of those after-school programs have been advised that the after-school bus service, which had been provided for years by the Westport Transit District, will almost certainly not be available at the start of the new school year Monday.
"For the immediate future, the various after-school programs are making their own arrangements to transport children from the schools to the programs," First Selectman Jim Marpe said. That may include private passenger van service and/or parent carpooling arrangements, he added.
The number of students using the after-school bus service varied by the day of week and from year to year, said Dewey Loselle, the town's operations director. "The Norwalk Transit District (which manages the Westport bus system) informed us that the range in a week is between 121 and 162 students, based on last year's utilization," he said. "However, as noted there is a lot of usage variance and NTD informs us that in past years it has been as much as 50 percent higher."
Funding for the after-school bus service was cancelled in early July when the Federal Transit Administration notified the Norwalk Transit District, which manages Westport transit programs, that it had determined the service providing students rides to after-school programs "is an unauthorized transit service route," Marpe said last week.
He said the "stops and clientele primarily involves students and, as such, the service was deemed equivalent to a `school bus service and, thus, was `non-compliant' with federal transit regulations."
"Based on instructions from the FTA, the NTD has contacted about a dozen private transportation companies and is advertising in several local publications to solicit expressions of interest in providing after-school transportation services," Marpe said.
"They have requested responses by Thursday" of this week, he added. "The results will enable NTD to determine whether they can continue to pursue a service exemption with the FTA which would allow Westport to continue to provide the existing after-school transportation program until January."
A handful of programs, including the Earthplace nature center, are affected by the bus service cancellation. However, Earthplace has been able to secure a private transportation provider for its after-school program, officials there announced. The route will include all five of the town's public elementary schools and will deliver students directly to Earthplace.
The loss of this public service puts the expense on Earthplace, but its officials said in a statement they recognize this program is vital to working parents who need to know that their child will have a seamless transition from school to a supervised afternoon program.
Calls to several other programs losing the after-school bus service for comments were not returned.
"We have gotten a couple of calls and inquiries" from parents, said Loselle. "Because of the way we worked with the programs and let them know what was happening in advance they communicated directly with the families of their programs," he added. "Due to that process I think parents know what is happening and why, and therefore have not called this office."
Loselle said program directors have told officials that many parents whose children attend the programs are concerned because they relied on the bus service. "Many of the families involved have two working spouses and some are single-parent households," who are unable to pick there children up after classes.
Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon said the after-school bus service "has always been a function of the operations of the Norwalk Transit District."
"It has never been an expense of the Board of Education, nor a responsibility of the Board of Education," Landon said. "Parents should rest assured, however, that First Selectman James Marpe is doing everything he can to have the federal government restore the funding that will enable after school bussing to continue."