Dr. Stefanie Lemcke lives on North Avenue. She is the founder and CEO of Gokid, a carpooling technology for schools. Stefanie writes:
When my husband and I learned (after the fact) that Mary Young, director of Westport’s Planning & Zoning Department, had issued a permit allowing the new school bus company First Student to park at Staples and other Westport schools, we were concerned.
First, there had been no notice or public hearing on the matter. In fact, we only learned of the permit when P&Z issued a press release.
Second, we believed any such decision properly lay with the Planning & Zoning Commission, and not with Ms. Young.
And third, we were concerned that this was a backhanded way to save money by permanently moving the parking to school property. (The previous company provided a parking lot on the Post Road).
We were assured, however, that this was only an interim measure, and that the conditions attached to the permit would protect neighbors and adequately address our concerns.
It turns out that we were right to be worried. Not only are these buses creating additional traffic around schools, but every weekday since school started, our entire North Avenue neighborhood has been awakened at 5:45 a.m. by the sound of buses firing up, then beeping and backing up, as well as the sound of motors idling.
Every morning, way before school starts, we have also been treated to the toxic pollution produced by those engines. Here’s a video:
Ali Stanley of Willow Walk says: “Since the first day of school I have been awakened by the beeping and honking of the buses parked at Staples. I look forward to October 31 when they can find an alternate home. The noise pollution is unsustainable.”
We raised the problem with the schools, the town and the Board of Education over the past week. We believed that we were on firm ground in doing so. After all, the permit expressly prohibits any activity that “adversely impact[s] the students, neighbors, and the community at large.”
Moreover, the permit states that any complaints will be resolved within 7 days.
Yet the town has done nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, when we raised the issue of idling buses, we were told that this was simply the company “doing their maintenance thing.” (Never mind that maintenance is specifically prohibited on school grounds.)
We are particularly concerned because the permit is due to expire on October 31, and to the best of our knowledge, the town has done nothing to procure alternative sites for the buses.
Buses parked during the day at Staples High School. (Photo/Stefanie Lemcke)
We believe that it would be unconscionable (and potentially illegal) for the town to extend this permit, given the lack of public input at the time it was adopted and the environmental and health consequences for residents.
It is time for the town to become more transparent about these types of decisions, to include neighbors in the process, and to reveal what efforts have been undertaken to find a permanent location for the buses.
We are a leading school district, so let’s lead by example: We are asking to bring back dedicated, off-campus parking for buses, which will decrease traffic around school sites, improve access, air quality, and safety for students and staff, and generally improve our quality of life.
Last week, in response to numerous concerns about school buses — including not only school parking, but routes and reliability — superintendent of school Thomas Scarice addressed the bus question. In an email to Westport Public Schools parents, he wrote:
The district has officially transitioned transportation providers from Dattco to First Student. Our efforts certainly are not perfect, particularly at the beginning of the school year, but performance is much improved and will only continue to get better as the days and weeks ensue.
Bus Parking: The district secured temporary authorization to park in our school lots through October 31 and we are actively pursuing options for the permanent parking of buses. An extension of authorization for school-based parking may need to be pursued in the interim.
New Buses: A completely new fleet of buses will roll off the assembly line and into our schools in December. When that happens, the transportation app will return. The current fleet does not have the technology to support the transportation app.
First Student buses. (Photo/Amy Schneider)
Drivers: There is a full roster of drivers this year, which significantly contributes to more reliability. Many Dattco drivers have been hired by First Student. However, there could be a time where a combined route is necessary if a significant number of drivers call out on a given day. There are a couple of routes that continue to need attention to improve performance and I can assure our families that this work is underway. Improvements will continue to be felt in the coming days and weeks.
Traffic: One pervasive challenge that has only worsened is the traffic volume around town. As we moved beyond the pandemic, traffic patterns became problematic. These problems are worse this year than any of my three previous years. We will work to reroute as needed to mitigate the effects of town traffic.
Overall, the entire transportation operation is better, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly at this point in the school year. Communication will improve and parents should look for messages from building administrators when there are delays.
To support our ask to bring back a dedicated school bus parking lot, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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