The Hamilton County Board of Education remains uncertain whether it will renew its bus contract with Durham School Services, but members agree independent bus owners should be able to pick up more routes.
The board needs to decide by its voting session on Jan. 19 whether it wants to send out a request for proposals, allowing companies to bid on the transportation contract held by Durham.
Where the rubber meets the road, however, is that companies may not want to bid on the job if the contract is for a short period of time, as it is more than a $20 million investment to supply the district with the 200 buses needed by next school year. And if the board enters into a longer contract with a company, it could limit the expansion of independent bus drivers.
After the fatal Woodmore Elementary school bus crash of Nov. 21, which killed six students, Durham agreed to renew its contract, set to expire this summer, for just one year. Several board members are open to that option, as it gives the district more time to look at increasing the number of independent drivers, who they believe are safer and more reliable. Others have previously said the board needs to send out a request for proposals to see if any other companies will bid.
Hamilton County Schools now uses 49 independent bus drivers, and the remaining 200 routes are covered by Durham.
"We are pressed for time," school board chairman Steve Highlander said during Tuesday's finance committee meeting. He said there are not enough independent bus drivers to cover all of the district's routes by the fall and that Durham has made huge strides to improve safety since the crash.
Highlander, along with school board members David Testerman, Rhonda Thurman, Joe Smith and Tiffanie Robinson, voiced support during the meeting for using more independent contract drivers.
Testerman said the board's decisions about transportation should not boil down to money.
"Safety has got to be the thing we make this decision on," he said.
Thurman said the district can still cut transportation costs by reducing the number of routes it runs, like those to magnet schools.
"I think if you want to go to school outside your district, you should have to provide your own transportation," she said.
Thurman also urged the board to soon extend four-year contracts with the system's current independent bus drivers.
"The [independent] contract bus drivers have been nothing but good employees," Thurman said. "I don't think they need to be punished. They haven't done anything wrong."
The school system spends about $15.6 million a year on busing, and Durham receives about $11.7 million of that. On average, an independent bus contractor makes about $32,500 in gross-pay driving for the district if he or she owns an 84-passenger bus, district figures show. These drivers are paid $2.21 per seat on the bus per day, along with a mileage reimbursement.
Contracted companies typically pay drivers per hour, as the employees do not own their buses and aren't responsible for the cost of upkeep.
Hamilton County Schools transportation supervisor Ben Coulter recommended that the board require any company it contracts with to pay its drivers at least $15 an hour, nearly a $2 increase from what Durham has been offering new drivers. He also recommended the board require the company to have a complaint management system.
Before November's deadly crash, there was no official complaint management system used to track how information was shared between Hamilton County Schools and Durham. After the crash, Durham officials said Hamilton County Schools did not notify them about all of the complaints of speeding they received against 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, who was driving the Woodmore bus.
Since the crash, Durham has implemented a system that electronically tracks all complaints and how they are handled.
Robinson said even if the district decides to use only independent contract drivers in the future, she wants a complaint management system in place.
In the coming weeks, the board is expected to meet again to further discuss renewing its contract with Durham for a year, and the option of taking full control of transportation.
District staff are working to estimate how much that would cost. It is expected to exceed $20 million and be an undertaking that requires years to implement.
Robinson, chairwoman of the finance committee, asked the district staff to provide the board with information on each transportation option, allowing the board and the community the chance to analyze the cost and benefits of each.
"I think it's important that we put all options on the table," Robinson said.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.