Dozens of parents and supporters rallied behind the former bus driver of 27 years of the Rochester bus route 5 during the October 12 meeting of the Rochester School Committee, vowing to return again after most of their questions remained unanswered.
Superintendent Doug White was tightlipped about the details behind the switching of routes of bus driver Rob Stinson and the subsequent firing of Stinson, and read a prepared statement addressing the School Committee and the public.
In its entirety, White stated: “Welcome, and I thank you for you passion on this particular topic. As we address this, there is a school component and there is also a bus company component. Just so we understand that, the School Committee agrees to a contract with a third party company to handle our bus company opportunities for all four of our districts. Rochester has a contract with Braga Transportation. So with that said, I have a few comments to state about the situation at hand.
“I know that there’s been concerns about a bus route in Rochester. I have empathy for both parties involved. As superintendent it is my responsibility to ensure that all students in the district are treated equally. During the course of the school year there are matters that come up that need to be addressed. When such issues arise I work closely with our administrators and families to meet the obligations of the students to ensure that all the requirements at large are being met. In the case of a recent bussing matter, not all regulations were being met, so in accordance with the current bus contract that was adopted between the school committee and the bus company, I asked the bus company to switch bus drivers so that all required regulations could be met for all students.
“At this point, it’s the obligation of the bus company to provide a driver for the route requested. As far as conditions of appointment of the bus driver, that is a matter of the bus company.
“In closing, in providing information for the School Committee, I also want to state that the district and the bus company has worked collaboratively for many, many years and will continue to work collaboratively. The request from the district to the bus company was to have the driver switch routes to meet the needs of the students, which has not been an issue in the past. Please understand, due to the confidentiality in this matter, there is no further information that I can share either with the School Committee or with the public at this time.”
When questioned about which regulations specifically were not being met, White said, “The regulation says that every child that lives a mile and a half from school must have the opportunity to be transported, and that was not being done under the current situation.”
“The transportation needs were not being met,” reiterated School Committee Chairman Tina Rood.
Resident Robert Joyce, who started a petition calling for an investigation in the firing of bus driver Robert Stinson, said, “I’m still unclear of that… I’m still not clear on the exact reasoning because you’re stating that the needs weren’t met and the rules were violated.”
According to White, the major concern was that a child was not being picked up.
“And that was the major issue… The need to change the driver would have solved the situation,” said White.
Joyce argued that the driver hired to replace Stinson was the real safety issue, saying that there have been two incidents when students were dropped off at home without any parents present.
“Are you personally investigating this?” asked Joyce. “Because this is a safety issue.”
White said that matter was already under investigation.
Many parents spoke out in defense of Stinson and pressed White for more information, but White and the School Committee asserted that specific information could not be released due to employee confidentiality.
“We felt that for all parties that for the ability for drivers to be given different routes would satisfy the needs of everyone,” White said.
But resident Melanie Zachary pointed out, “A driver was let go, he wasn’t moved. And I heard from the grapevine that he supposedly could get another bus route, but where has that gone? If you can trust him with a whole other bus of children, why can’t he be trusted with the bus that he’s driven for 27 years? Why is the need of one child taken over the need of the other…children on the bus…?”
“It’s really hard to talk about this one because we’re not the employer,” said School Committee member Sharon Hartley, “so we don’t have all of the controls as an employer might have, and we do have a protected situation where there are children, parents, employers, and employees involved here.” She continued, “I never remember a problem like this coming before us like this…in nine years with Braga… We’re going to do our best, I assure you, to take care of this. We can’t talk about all the matters, but we are concerned.”
Joyce mentioned that he had documentation from Braga Transportation that White gave the bus company permission to interview the children during its investigation into Stinson.
“Is this true? Did you give the bus company permission to speak with our children?” asked Joyce.
“They can conduct an interview through our administration,” said White.
Unsatisfied with the reply, Joyce pressed White to admit that he gave permission for bus company administrators to speak to the children without parental notification.
“No, I did not,” said White. “I said that they can conduct an investigation… They have the ability…[but] I did not give them direct permission.
“So the bus company lied,” said Joyce.
When asked, Joyce said he did not have the documentation with him.
After another resident took issue with Stinson’s firing as opposed to allegedly having the option to moving to a different route, White replied, “ All I can tell you is that between the employer and the employee, that’s how it needs to be addressed.”
“We’re talking about the livelihood of somebody whose been driving for 27 years,” said resident Barry Patrakis, “and it could substantially affect his life.” He said the issue still won’t be closed after the meeting, and the bus company would continue to receive feedback from concerned parents. “Ultimately we are the customer even though they are the employer, but as tax payers and voters we are ultimately the employer.”
Rood stated, “The recommendation has been made to the bus company, but in the end they are the employer…but the recommendation has been made several times.”
There are a lot of upset children, one resident pointed out, and one of them was present in Stinson’s defense and gave a tearful testimony on the kids’ love for Stinson.
Resident Julie Koczera commented, “I think a lot of the problem here as parents and children on the bus, we’re just looking for a better understanding of why… I think we have the right to a better understanding too… I feel as though I have the right to know.”
White stated that the recommendation was to have Stinson switched to another route and no longer be allowed to drive Route 5.
“The request was for a change,” said Rood. “What happened beyond that is what happened beyond that.” She later said, “Obviously there is passion behind this issue but I would ask everybody to trust our administration…and that that process is being followed.
The Rochester School District still has another two years to its contract with Braga.
The next meeting of the Rochester School Committee is scheduled for November 16 at 6:30 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.
Rochester School Committee
By Jean Perry