Joe Bernardi may no longer be employed by the Somers school district, but he will still be around to help guide it through the transition of a new transportation director.
Bernardi was placed on paid administrative leave in December shortly after an incident involving school bus driver William J. Mendez sparked an internal investigation.
Mendez, 61, of Somers, was arrested on Wednesday, Dec. 18, and charged with Aggravated DWI and DWI, after Somers Intermediate School students aboard his bus nine days earlier had called parents to report that he was driving erratically.
The district is also investigating an October 2018 bus accident involving the same driver.
Bernardi, who had been with the district for 15 years, handed in his letter of resignation last month. It was accepted without comment by the Board of Education when it voted to accept items on its Tuesday, Feb. 11, personnel agenda.
That was expected; perhaps what was not was that Bernardi, who was also the district’s chief safety officer, was then granted an unpaid leave of absence, effective the next day until Sept. 14.
The intent, schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch explained later, was to ensure that Bernardi remain “available to share his institutional knowledge of the transportation department.” Or, as Assistant Superintendent for Business Ken Crowley put it after the meeting, to “help work the bugs out of the system.”
The district has already appointed Peter Ferone as interim transportation director, but he is leaving at the end of May. That means there will be a gap of several months if a more permanent replacement isn’t found before then.
It has also expanded the duties of its part-time safety and security coordinator, retired Police Officer Daniel Corrado.
Joseph Marra was the only trustee to bring up Bernardi’s name during the board’s comment period Tuesday.
He pointed out that the board had “very quietly voted on the personnel agenda, in which there was the resignation of Mr. Bernardi.”
“This brings, I believe, to a close a tumultuous few months that we’ve had as a result of what happened on the bus back on Dec. 9,” Marra said.
The board had heard lots from the public in the Bus P incident’s wake.
There were some who passionately argued that Bernardi had been an exemplary employee, boss and colleague and was being scapegoated and those “who were outraged by what happened, and couldn’t believe what happened and demanded action, demanded that heads roll,” Marra said.
“Both parties had a lot of valid arguments and a lot of valid things to say,” but it doesn’t make the board’s decision to accept Bernardi’s resignation any easier, he said.
“It’s bittersweet in a way; something had to happen.”
Marra acknowledged that there are still “some scars” on the Bus P children and the school community.
“But hopefully now from this—from this avoidance of tragedy...we have learned and will continue to learn and can move forward,” he said.
BUS CONTRACT UPDATE
The district is currently in its fifth year of a contract with Royal Coach.
Blanch had suggested last month that the board consider starting the lengthy and complicated process of seeking other vendors. However, it voted Tuesday to extend Royal Coach Line’s contract by a year. This means that the company will be the district’s vendor through the 2020-2021 school year. The terms of the agreement now can’t be renegotiated until the fall.
Last month, a divided task force—citing the costs and logistical problems of switching bus providers midstream—recommended that the district retain Royal Coach for the foreseeable future.
Members Katie Winter, principal of the Primrose Elementary School, and Robert Ondrovic, a volunteer with the district’s mentoring program, told the board in January that the Royal Coach fleet is in good shape and its drivers know the routes and routines and are generally liked by the children they transport.
It’s likely the district would be getting the same employees even if it decided to go with a new company, they said.
The task force had an earnest talk in January with Royal Coach president and CEO Steven DiPaolo, who, it said, appeared more than willing to implement any changes the district wanted.
“If our goal is to make things safer and better, we can do that by making some of those changes here and having a vendor that will make them with us,” Winter said.
The task force has recommended that the safety and transportation positions be split and is asking Royal Coach to replace the dispatcher assigned to Somers. The company has already removed safety director Robert D’Amico.
DiPaolo could not comment on the dispatcher situation Tuesday, Feb. 18, but did confirm that the contract had been extended.
He also said that the company is looking to hire more drivers in Somers and other communities such as Mahopac and Yorktown.
“Going forward this should make things easier and more efficient,” he explained.
As for putting his head together with the school district’s on the latter’s transportation policies? “Obviously, I’ve been working to be part of the solution,” DiPaolo said.
OTHER ADMINISTRATIVE MOVES
Bernardi wasn’t the only one featured on the board’s personnel agenda Tuesday.
Crowley also handed in his resignation “with intent to retire” effective Friday, Feb. 28.
But in his case, he isn’t going anywhere, literally.
Crowley, who is in his mid-60s, will now be “interim assistant superintendent for business,” which means that as a tenured employee, on top of his pension, he’ll still be drawing a salary, but will have fewer benefits, such as health insurance.
Crowley’s contract runs through Dec. 31, and is, he said, “renewable.”
He compared the situation to the people who collect Social Security but can still have a paying job as long as they meet certain requirements.
Crowley said he didn’t feel like he was retiring. He loves the district and the people he works with and has no plans to leave.
“I’m doing it for economic reasons,” he explained.
While Crowley’s contemplating his professional future, he might have more time for (wait for it) doing the Cha Cha Cha, rumba and foxtrot.
Yes, that’s right. Apparently, the normally staid finances-meister is quite something in the ballroom dance arena. When he’s not crunching numbers for the school district or explaining complicated budgets, he can be seen rocking a sporty black ensemble as he glides around the dance floor with his bejeweled and befeathered partner at a Dutchess County studio.
As for retirement?
“I haven’t gotten there mentally, yet,” said Crowley.