Pittsfield city councilors should not rubber-stamp any School Department proposal, but if they can’t come up with specific objections to a well-researched, well-argued proposal they should logically approve it. That failed to happen Tuesday night when three city councilors squashed a sound proposal to replace the city’s aging school bus fleet.
The plan, nearly four years in the making, called for the floating of a $2.7 million bond over five years to purchase 43 buses. The current fleet was purchased with a 12-year bond that the city still owes money on, and the five-year bond would provide flexibility in terms of trade-ins and other options Pittsfield does not have now. A two-thirds council majority was required to pass the bond, and it failed with Councilors Lisa Tully, Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli in opposition and Councilor Nicholas Caccamo abstaining because he is a school system employee. That status is hamstringing the new Ward 3 councilor, who otherwise could be counted upon as a supporter of responsible educational proposals like this one.
The objections by the three opponents were largely general in nature. Mr. Simonelli of Ward 7 doesn’t believe that the city should be in the "transportation business," but Kristen Behnke, the assistant school superintendent for business and finance, can point to an auditor’s study concluding that owning buses is more cost effective than hiring a contractor. Superintendent Jason McCandless said his experience as a superintendent in Lee convinced him it would cost more to hire a private contractor because of the lack of competition for such a contract in the Berkshires. Facts should trump philosophical beliefs.
That Ward 1 Councilor Tully drives a 10-year-old vehicle is her business and no argument whatsoever for the city keeping an aging school bus fleet. Ms. Tully and Councilor Morandi said taxpayers were concerned about rising costs, and those concerns are actually a good argument for replacing the fleet in a responsible five-year period. It is arguably more costly, and also unsafe, to struggle to keep aging buses on the road rather than the scrap heap where they belong. The "tighten our belts" argument put forth again by Mr. Morandi of Ward 2 cannot be used as an excuse to reject good School Department proposals without merit.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi, who is also a member of the School Committee, was sanguine after the vote, observing that there is time before the fleet purchase was to have been made in August for another vote on the bond. Perhaps the mayor figures he can arm-twist at least one vote in favor of the plan, but as it stands now, three indefensible votes have caused a thoughtful school bus plan to crash.