Bus Company Severs Contract; Boards Call Emergency Session

By RACHEL KOVAC

School buses will roll on the Vineyard tomorrow, although it is still unclear who will manage them. Under mounting pressure from a heated labor dispute with its bus drivers, on Friday MV Coachlines abruptly pulled the plug on its transportation contract with the Island school district.

MV Coachlines president Edward W. Pigman told Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss that he could not fulfill the terms of his contract because he was unable to find enough bus drivers to work for him.

The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district committee and the up-Island regional school committee will hold an emergency meeting at 9 p.m. tonight to make a decision about school transportation for the year - either by awarding the contract to Island Transport or taking on the responsibility themselves.

Last Monday bus drivers told school committee members they would not drive for MV Coachlines because of unpaid bonuses, inhospitable working conditions, reduced routes and distrust of Mr. Pigman.

On Thursday only eight drivers attended a meeting set up to assign the 13 bus routes for transporting children to school. The drivers were told they needed to make a commitment to the company by Friday morning. On Friday afternoon Mr. Pigman contacted Mr. Weiss by phone and later by a faxed letter to formally sever his contract with the school district.

After a flawed bid process this summer, the high school committee and up-Island school committee awarded a one-year school bus contract to MV Coachlines, a subsidiary of Transit Resource Center in Winter Springs, Fla. MV Coachlines managed the school buses last year for the first time, following a dispute between the school district and Island Transport, which had held the contract for 20 years.

In an emergency meeting on Friday afternoon, the all-Island school transportation subcommittee examined the two remaining options for bus service. One is to award the transportation contract to the only other company that bid on it - Island Transport. The other option is to have the school district manage the buses.

Mr. Weiss said the subcommittee recommended the school district take over management, while still contracting with Vineyard Transit Authority to maintain the fleet.

"I firmly believe we will be able to have the buses run on Wednesday for freshman and Thursday for everyone," Mr. Weiss said on Friday. "Over the course of the next couple months we will put in a system that will work really well for the Island."

The superintendent, who is in his first year on the job, spent the weekend contacting bus drivers to ask if they are willing to work for the school system. Mr. Weiss will meet with drivers today at 5 p.m. to assess whether there are enough to cover the busing needs.

Scott Dario, owner of Island Transport, said yesterday he is prepared to take over the contract if the committee chooses to go that way. Mr. Dario said he met with drivers several weeks ago to discuss routes and management and has a team willing to work for him. Many of the school bus drivers also work for Mr. Dario's company driving tour buses.

Bus drivers who were unwilling to work for MV Coachlines expressed relief at the news that the company had severed its contract with the schools. Many said the company had not treated the drivers well.

The company failed to pay promised bonuses in June. Mr. Pigman told drivers at a meeting on August 17 that they would get the bonuses in three parts, but only if they agreed to work for him again this year. Later 14 drivers hired an attorney, and the bonuses were paid.

The company also planned to reduce the routes from 15 to 13, which would have meant a longer ride for some children, and longer hours for drivers.

"Our commitments are first safety and second a commitment to be a school bus driver," said Tom Dresser, who resigned from MV Coachlines on Friday. "The real reason I resigned was a safety factor."

School leaders remained in a scramble yesterday about the bussing issue, and a final decision will not be made until tonight, just hours before the start of school for high school freshman on Wednesday morning. But Mr. Weiss expressed confidence at the outcome.

"My original thought is that we could eventually take it over ourselves," he said. "Mr. Pigman pulling out of the contract has just moved that along."

The superintendent said he will begin looking for a transportation manager on Tuesday. Drivers said they are willing to work for the school, even though there might be a few stumbles along the way.

"There are going to be mistakes," Mr. Dresser said. "But there's no arrogance here. We're working as a team."

Mr. Dresser said most drivers know their routes by heart, so stepping in on Wednesday will pose little problem. But as of yesterday afternoon Mr. Weiss still did not know what the routes would be. Regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said bus schedules were sent to students in a back-to-school mailing, but now that MV Coachlines is no longer in the picture, the routes could change.

Michael Kemly, a bus driver who was critical of MV Coachlines, said he plans to attend the meeting tonight with an open mind and a positive outlook.

"I'm cutting Weiss a little bit of slack cause he's new and he doesn't know the ways of the Island," Mr. Kemly said Monday. "He's learning as he's going along here."

Mr. Dresser said losing MV Coachlines was a giant step in the right direction.

"Now it's our responsibility," he concluded. "No matter who's in charge, the buses have to run."