POWNAL — At their regular meeting last week, members of the Pownal School Board invited Michael Dufour to speak about the changes they can expect when Dufour Tours begins shuttling their students next school year.
For many years, Pownal has operated its own school buses, but Act 153 of 2010 changed statute to require that supervisory unions provide all transportation to their member districts, unless the member district could prove that their operating their own buses was more efficient and more cost-effective. Pownal was informed by Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe in December of last year that the school district is out of compliance with the law. Under the advisement of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen, the Pownal board sought a two-year waiver to allow Pownal to continue to operate its buses while the matter was studied, but Holcombe denied that waiver request in September, saying that if Pownal joined the rest of the SVSU in its contract with Dufour, it would save taxpayers over $100,000 in FY17 alone.
Holcombe did offer a one-year waiver that would allow Pownal's buses to remain in operation until June 2016, but only under the condition that Pownal agreed to join the SU contract for the following school year. Had Pownal remained out of compliance, or it goes out of compliance again in the future, the town could be faced with penalties on the education tax rate.
Dufour said his company will maintain the four routes currently being used by Pownal drivers. Asked by principal Todd Phillips if the school day would have to be shifted to fit into the wider bus schedule, Dufour said it was unclear if a shift would be necessary, and he promised to try to keep the school day the same, if possible.
"I have to look at everything involved," he said, "I have to be at the middle school at a certain time every morning, and it's the same thing with the high school. We're certainly open to looking to not adjust your school day."
Dufour also clarified that, should there be a problem on one of the buses, the driver will contact Dufour, not the school, as is done with the current service. Phillips expressed concern about this, saying that often he was able to work with the Pownal bus drivers to solve problems quickly, such as if a parent is not present to pick up their child. Dufour attempted to allay his fears, saying, "I deal with that on an every-day basis, Todd. To be honest with you, there are a lot of cases where I can solve the problem within seconds, without going to a school. I bus Shaftsbury, Woodford, all of (Bennington School District), if there's a problem on a bus, 95 percent of the time the administrators don't know about it until after the fact." He said if the parent of a young child is not there for pickup, they make a return trip if possible, and if not they will return to the school with the children.
Board member Jim O'Conner asked Dufour if he would consider hiring Pownal bus drivers if there are openings at Dufour. Dufour responded that they are welcome to submit applications. "If they fulfill the criteria, which there's no reason they wouldn't, then I'm sure if there was an opening we would hire them," he said.
The Pownal Elementary School Board meets the third Wednesday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in the Pownal Elementary School library. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.