It may give parents warm fuzzies to know their child is taking a bus to school steered by one of 35 independent drivers with their own buses, but that option will cost the Hamilton County Schools more than $400,000 for the 2017-2018 school year.
It's the price of safety, some might say. After all, you can't put a price on the life of a child.
The proposed contract — with a compensation bump for drivers — has yet to be finalized, but Lee McDade, the district's assistant superintendent of student services, told the Hamilton County Board of Education Thursday night the cost for the 35 drivers next year would be an additional $416,000.
Independent drivers also can bid on 34 more routes, but those drivers would not get the insurance from the school district the 35 drivers now in place do (though the new drivers would get a $9,500 annual bonus).
The daily cost to the district for an independent driver is $397, according to McDade, while the cost for a driver supplied from Durham School Services is $325 per day.
Until last November, parents may not have cared who owned the bus that got their child to school as long as it got their child to school safely.
That was when a Durham bus driver exceeding the speed limit on a twisty, hilly Talley Road rolled his bus and smashed into a tree, killing six Woodmore Elementary School students.
The driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, who survived the crash, is a local man, but he was employed by Durham, a Warrenville, Ill.-based company. It turned out Walker, in his first year as a driver, had had several previous fender-benders and had had several complaints filed against him by parents and faculty members.
Durham, nevertheless, will continue to provide the bulk of the district's bus transportation needs in the coming year, but the public may feel better knowing independent owners may be driving more routes than they did this year.
But the public also should understand — as many are learning with the recently announced budget by President Trump — that government is not an unlimited debit card. If parents feel more comfortable paying independent drivers more money to bus their children, that's wonderful, but that's $400,000-plus dollars that may not pay for a roof on a leaky school or music teachers in several schools or a new track in place of a crumbling one at a local high school.
It's easy to say, as some officials do in answer to every problem, that the school district just needs more money. Well, how much is enough? Unfortunately, in an era where budgets must be spread thinner — minus a tax increase or a school district lottery payoff — choices have to be made.
The choice parents seem to want is more independent drivers. But peace of mind, unlike a child, has a price.