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Story - Education

Feb 2, 2010 4:22 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East Hampton addresses concerns over proposed $4.5 million referendum

Feb 2, 2010 4:22 PM

The East Hampton School District this week began a public relations blitz to win support for a proposed $4.5 million bond to purchase property in East Hampton Village to serve as a district bus depot.

To kick off the effort, the School Board moved its January 26 meeting from East Hampton High School to the Edward Schaefer and Sons property on Route 114 that the district is currently leasing for its bus operations. Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri said he hoped the meeting would serve as a question-and-answer session for concerned community members, and he invited district Business Administrator Isabel Madison to present the plans and explain the cost.

Although about 20 people attended the meeting, only two were community members who were not employed by the school district.

The board announced in November its plans to put to a vote the purchase of the former Verizon Wireless property on King Street to be used as the district’s bus depot. The total cost of the project is just more than $4 million, including the $3.25 million price tag for the property and the repairs and additions to the existing building. Dr. Gualtieri said that amount is slightly less than the original figure because some of the repairs were scaled down. A referendum vote was set to take place on December 22, but just a week beforehand, the district decided to postpone it until March, citing the need to communicate better with the community before going forward.

Ms. Madison handed out a spreadsheet of the district’s actual transportation costs since 2005 and projected transportation costs, including a column that broke down the projected $1 million savings the district has said taxpayers will eventually see if the bond is approved.

The savings would be obtained by eliminating rent, contractual costs and the cost of purchasing and leasing buses, she said. According to the spreadsheet, the district will save $100,000 in rent each year to Edward Schaefer and Sons and about $330,000 in contracts to outside bus companies that make “special runs” for school programs out of the district, including for BOCES programs which are located as far away as Islip. More than $500,000 will be eliminated from the budget between the end of the current school year and 2012, when the district will finish paying for all of its buses, which it began to purchase in 2006.

Since it was announced, the part of that savings figure that has been largely contested was the assumed 10-percent annual cost increase of contracted services.

“People had a hard time believing that,” Ms. Madison said. At the meeting, she passed around a spreadsheet of actual contractual bids from three bus companies to show that the estimated 10-percent increase in costs each year was not only accurate, but modest. According to the spreadsheet, the average yearly increase is actually more than 20 percent.

She said it is more expensive to use contracted bus services because they are for-profit businesses. In addition to eliminating the profit margin, she said when a school district controls its own transportation it pays less for fuel, is not required to pay taxes and can insure employees for less under the umbrella of the school district, which has lower premiums.

“It doesn’t matter how you look at it,” she said. “They have higher costs than us.”

At the meeting, School Board Member John Ryan said that typically Montauk Bus Company was the only company to bid on the district’s contracts, which increases costs. Board President Sandra Vorpahl added that the district’s needs have grown larger than local bus companies can accommodate, which made the bidding process more selective and more expensive.

“Our district grew monumentally and none of the companies around here grew to that size,” she said. “Big companies wanted to bid, but they’re coming to the Hamptons, they’re going to charge whatever they want.”

“Other than Bridgehampton and Montauk, the entire South Fork decided it was cheaper to do their own transportation than bid up island,” Dr. Gualtieri said. He added that the Sag Harbor School District is also in the process of controlling its transportation services.

Sag Harbor Superintendant John Gratto said his district owns two buses that it purchased this year, and would need a total of 17 to be able to control all its transportation in-house. He said Sag Harbor contracts with the Montauk Bus Company for regular school runs and special runs to private schools and BOCES. He said his district wants to own its own buses, but not a bus depot. But Dr. Gratto, who estimated that Sag Harbor would save about 46.5 million over 10 years, said it will still need to contract maintenance services. “One of the things we need to figure out is where to store the buses,” he said. “We have space for some of them now, but not all of them.”

The Southampton School District owns a fleet of 48 buses and a bus garage. Its transportation costs are about $2.7 million for the current school year. East Hampton has 36 buses and calculates that it will spend about half that amount by 2011-2012, according to its budget spreadsheet.

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