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NLS postpones transportation decision to March 9

NEW LONDON -- The New London-Spicer School Board on Monday postponed its decision on a transportation contract for 2009-10 and 2010-11 after more than two hours of comparison between two contract offers and a plethora of input from the community.

"We owe it to ourselves and the community" to think the decision through, said board member Dan DeGeest toward the end of discussions. "There's no redo on this one."

DeGeest made a motion Monday evening for the board to delay choosing between a transportation contract with longtime local provider Russell's Bus Service of New London or with a lower bidder, American Student Transportation from Maple Grove. He said he needed more time to digest the information.

His motion was seconded and approved on a 5-2 vote. Voting in favor of the delay were DeGeest, Holli Cogelow-Ruter and Renee Nolting, David Kilpatrick and Robert Moller. Mike O'Brien and Helena Lungstrom voted against postponing the decision.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion about the two contracts and questions and comments by the board members and about 40 to 50 community members.

A "one-way conversation" comment period started the night before the district dove into the details of the contracts. Many of the audience's comments seemed directed toward preserving a relationship with Russell's Bus Service. Some seemed to question whether it had been necessary for the board to hire a consultant -- Tom Watson of Watson Consulting Group -- to gather information about transportation options.

"You're negotiating a tough contract, I know," said Lyle Knutson, a former New London-Spicer teacher from 1967-77. "But you're negotiating a community contract."

Other people speculated that Russell's Bus Service would fold if it lost the NLS contract and that many voters then would not support the school district when it asked for another operating levy. Voters just approved a new levy in November.

Rob Dobbs, a former athletic director for New London-Spicer Schools, said he'd "be willing to bet his last dollar" on local voters rejecting the district's next operating levy proposal if Russell's doesn't get the contract.

The district would save about $16,500 in 2009-11 under a new contract with Russell's Bus Service, compared with the 2007-09 contract with Russell's, according to Superintendent Paul Carlson. But with American Student Transportation, Carlson said, the district would save $38,167, compared with the previous contract.

According to documents provided at the meeting, the two contracts are separated by an estimated $37,744, with American Student Transportation offering the lower bid of $1,786,877 for the two-year contract.

Board members said they would not base their decision strictly on the dollars.

The district's transportation committee, made up of O'Brien and Kilpatrick, recommended Monday that the School Board pursue the offer with American Student Transportation. Silence followed from the board until Kilpatrick offered a motion to follow the committee's recommendation and O'Brien seconded.

The motion was withdrawn by Kilpatrick shortly thereafter when board members DeGeest, Cogelow-Ruter and Nolting indicated they wanted more time to consider the options.