Higher costs and schedule changes: CT high school teams struggle with bus issues

A school bus arrives on the first day of classes after the holiday break.

A school bus arrives on the first day of classes after the holiday break.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Killingly High School cross country team had a meet in Stonington earlier this month scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. With only one bus available to make the drive, the team left the school on a Wednesday at noon.

“They arrived 3 hours and 15 minutes before their meet,” Killingly athletic director Kevin Marcoux said. 

The situation was far from ideal, but it’s the unfortunate reality many school districts continue to face across Connecticut when it comes to transporting student-athletes to sporting events. While the shortage of bus drivers has show some improvement, some districts are still needing to take additional steps to ensure their athletes can make it to games whether it be hiring outside companies, spending more money or scheduling games at different times.

For the Killingly teams, they faced an uphill struggle with five drivers for the bus company that services the district out due to illness. Bus companies are largely better staffed this year following a shortage that peaked during the last two school years, but the absence of just a few drivers can have widespread implications for daily bus routes, let alone for sports-related transportation.

The absence of those drivers led Marcoux to connect with Norwich Free Academy, its opponent for a recent football game, to see if the school could provide transportation for Killingly. School administrators agreed and Killingly was able to provide transportation to its own students back home after the game. But it was yet another temporary solution.

Different companies, more money

Danbury High School athletic director Chip Salvestrini is among the administrators who has looked outside the company his school district is contracted with in order to find help transporting its athletes. And it’s an idea he has grown accustomed to.

"Although the transportation service from our district is better this year, we are very far from where we need to be,” Salvestrini said. “Our district continues to support us with the use of the outside companies even though the costs for those buses can be three to four times more than what our district buses charge. However, if we do not see marked improvement in getting more district buses at the times we need them as we move through this school year, the funding for bus transportation currently in place will be over budget prior to the start of the 2023 spring season.”

The district has hired Elite Limousine, a Norwalk company, for over half of the games held off the Danbury campus during September. That’s because the district-contracted company can’t take teams to games until 4 p.m. and Danbury has many games in which the district needs to leave the school by 2:30 p.m.

Using an outside company, however, comes with a cost. Salvestrini said it’s about $600 more for each event, or about $24,600 extra just in September.

“I cannot speak for other school districts but this is a huge red flag for us,” Salvestrini said. "We are being served well by the outside vendors. But clearly there is no way we will be able to sustain the necessary funding to manage our athletic transportation with outside carriers.” 

The cost similarly doubles – or more – when using a company beyond the one contracted with Weston schools, high school athletic director Mark Berkowitz said. The district increased the transportation fund by $7,000 for this year, but it's unlikely to be enough.

“I didn’t know we’d be in as bad a shape as we are right now as far as our need for transportation, or we probably would have increased it a little more,” Berkowitz said.

Cheshire High saw its transportation costs double, too, from $110,000 annually to $200,000 last school year.

“A normal school bus is around $250 for a typical contest, while a charter could exceed $900,” athletic director Steve Trifone said. “We try to double-up teams on charters to make it cost-effective. Spring tends to be the most expensive due to the number of contests played in the afternoon when school buses are not available (they need to be available for school dismissal runs).”

Derby High School athletic director Teg Cosgriff has rescheduled games for another reason – the local company needs to drop students off between 2 and 4 p.m. and doesn’t have enough drivers available for athletic events.

“We either move games to a later date or secure other transportation services from outside vendors,” Cosgriff said. “Middle schools have the toughest time as it is difficult for schools to move their games to later times. … The situation has not improved this year from last.”

Similarly, the Coginchaug High School students can’t get to away games until around 5 p.m. Todd Petronio, the athletic director of the Durham-based school, said district administrators did not want to dismiss its students early for games, an instead decided to push back start times.

“We feel they have lost so much time (in school) over the past two years,” Petronio said. “Dismissing them early was customary last spring, but it’s not an acceptable practice. Looking at bus trips in the last two weeks, we have probably moved maybe 25 percent of our games to a different time or day. We typically don’t reach out to various outside companies. The cost to send them far exceeds the inconvenience, so we move games to a later start time or a Saturday.”

Doubling up

The bus issue is one that trickles down. Already facing issues with the varsity team, junior varsity and freshman teams can feel the brunt even more.

In addition to moving sub-varsity games to Saturday, Masuk High School athletic director Craig Semple said he has had to  “double up some smaller teams on one bus that are going in the same direction.”

Semple served in the same role at Hand High School in Madison the previous 18 years and in the past the bus company would reach out to other towns in order to help “fill our needs, and the price was the same.” That’s no longer a luxury with other towns and companies facing similar problems.

Meanwhile, Salvestrini and Oxford High School athletic director Joe Stochmal are among those that have turned to playing more games on Saturday when the bus companies have fewer, if any, conflicts.

“It hasn’t gotten any better. Hopefully, it will get better,” Stochmal said. “I have been told by (the bus company) in Oxford that they are doing a lot of recruiting and some training. Hopefully, by the end of October or beginning of November, they will have more drivers, but no guarantees.”

Brookfield was one of the districts most affected last fall. Athletic director Steve Baldwin started using party buses from Carriage Limousine in the spring of 2021. He often ordered a party bus to transport Brookfield’s athletes to away matches or games.

Baldwin said transportation has been much smoother so far this fall and has not had to use an outside company. But old habits die hard: Baldwin booked Carriage Limousine and Land Jet on his busiest days just in case.

“If I give them 24 hours, there has not been an issue for canceling,” Baldwin said. “They have worked with us and have been understanding.  Both companies have been great.”

joseph.morelli@hearstmediact.com; @nhrJoeMorelli