Committee hears of transportation improvements


Westborough – At its Aug. 27 meeting, the School Committee heard a report on improvements that have been made to the district's Special Education transportation services as a result of the verbal assault of a Special Ed student by a driver last winter.

Assabet Valley Collaborative (AVC) Director Colleen Cavanaugh told the School Committee that many changes have been made, and while keeping costs down is always a concern, AVC's first goal is the safety of the students it transports.

Westborough is a member of the AVC, a partnership of nine area school districts that provides a wide variety of services, including out-of-district transportation for Special Ed students.

The incident that brought problems with Special Ed transportation to the district's attention involved a nonspeaking student who was verbally assaulted by his van driver. Fellow student Evan McNamara stood up for the non-speaking student and reported the incident.

"[Evan McNamara was] a hero who blew the whistle on a bad situation," Superintendent Anne Towle said

Evan McNamara's report triggered changes in AVC's transportation contract, including the reduction in the number of vendors from as many as five to one. This year's contract has been awarded exclusively to Robert L. McCarthy and Sons of North Brookfield. Towle told the committee that she'd had several experiences with McCarthy and Sons, and all of them had been positive.

The contract with McCarthy and Sons allows AVC to run annual CORI (criminal background) checks on drivers, even though transportation vendors also run CORI checks, as does the state before drivers are licensed to operate school buses. Pre-employment and random drug and alcohol tests are also run, though the state does not require them.

Vehicles used to transport students will be regular minivans. Those vehicles have been fitted with GPS devices that will allow AVC to monitor their location at all times.

Evan McNamara's mother, Maureen McNamara, told the committee that in previous years the transportation of Special Needs students was "riddled with problems" that would not have been tolerated with non-Special Needs students. She cited several instances, including the physical assault of her son by the person paid to monitor him on the ride to school, vans that arrive too early or too late, and a student in a vehicle that was involved in a hit-and-run accident.

Maureen McNamara said that although the town places the students in wonderful outof district schools and pays top dollar to transport them there, "the ride there is not safe."

While she understood the administration's optimism that problems have been solved, she said, she would adopt a "wait and see" attitude.

Cost School Committee members were also concerned with the cost of transporting the town's Special Needs students, which is roughly $17,000 per student. While their first priority was student safety, they said, finding ways to control costs was also their responsibility. They asked Towle to come back in three weeks with a detailed report on the district's costs compared to those in surrounding districts, the rate of cost growth over the past several years, and suggestions for cost-saving measures.

School Committee Chair Rod Jane also suggested that a subcommittee should be formed to look for "creative ways to reduce this piece of the budget."