The newly formed joint School Bus Parking Task Force -- established by town and school officials to review possible alternate locations for parking buses at public and privately owned sites -- held its first meeting Thursday morning.

The group includes members of the Board of Education, Board of Finance, Representative Town Meeting and the Selectmen's Office.

With the five-year school bus contract up for renewal in June 2015, the task force is looking for ways to save on costs of parking the buses, which are currently housed at a privately owned, 0.93-acre parcel of land on Post Road East at a cost of about $265,000 a year.

"For years the land has been leased by Dattco (which currently holds the bus contract) and that cost has been passed on to the town," said Dewey Loselle, the town's operations director. While the task force is a Board of Education committee, Loselle and school board member Karen Kleine are jointly leading the effort.

"If we owned the property or an alternative site, we would not have to pay that cost," he said.

Also, there would be more competition from other companies for the school bus contract, Loselle added. "Dattco has the lease and the strategic advantage -- others bidding for the contract would have to bring in their buses from other areas," he said.

The district currently is served by 62 buses, 41 full-size and 15 mini buses, according to Elio Longo, the school district's business manager and a task force member.

Dattco also provides four spare full-size and two spare mini buses each day.

Of the total buses, 52 remain in Westport at the Post Road East property overnight and 10 are stored at a Bridgeport facility overnight.

Total cost of the bus contract for 2014-15 is $3,838,892. This includes all home-to-school, private school and summer school transportation for 2014-15.

In addition to the total costs, the district paid Dattco approximately $177,000 for sports charters last year and will likely spend that much this year, said Longo. The district also spends a minimum of $30,000 on in-district charters this year.

Loselle said the issue of school bus parking has been discussed over the years and close to 20 publicly owned sites have been looked at as possible bus parking sites. But not all of them would be good locations, he said.

However, a small portion of town-owned Baron's South that abuts the current parking spot is being considered and the task force plans a feasibility study, he added.

The task force is also "seeking to engage a commercial real estate broker who will look at potential private sites," he said.

Loselle said the task force needs to work quickly to come up with recommendations since bidding on the new contract begins in January and planners need to know if the town will be acquiring its own site for parking.

"This year the BOE has made it a clear goal to address this issue and to work toward an improved solution that both meets the board's operational needs and reduces costs," school board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney said. "I believe that working collaboratively with the town in a focused manner to tackle this issue will result in a win-win for the schools, the town and our taxpayers."

"This is a topic that has been much discussed and explored over the years by many parties and individuals, however, we are still in the same situation," First Selectman Jim Marpe said in a press statement on the task force.

"The task force that has been assembled consists of individuals who have grappled with the issue over the years and are well versed in the various complicating factors," he added. "My hope is that with this team of town and Board of Education members working together, that jointly we can come up with a better solution which works for the board, the town and our taxpayers."

The Dattco official who oversees the Westport school bus service could not be reached for comment.

Members of the School Bus Task Force, besides Kleine, Loselle and Longo, are school board member Mark Mathias, school district business manager Elio Longo, Selectman Avi Kaner, Finance Director Gary Conrad, Board of Finance member Michael Rea and RTM member Allen Bomes.

An Advisory Committee for After-school Bus Transportation is also looking into piggy-backing on the school bus contract as an option to supplying shuttle buses serving some local after-school programs.

That committee, established by Marpe, is examining the feasibility of re-structuring the shuttle service to comply with the federal government's criteria.

Shuttle-bus service for after-school programs, patronized by about 160 children, was abruptly cut when the Federal Transit Administration in August determined the service -- offered by the town for several decades and provided by the Westport Transit District -- was not compliant with federal regulations. It later was restored after a waiver was granted, but only temporarily until Jan. 1.

That committee's recommendation is expected sometime this month.