Hamilton County Schools prepares to seek bids for new bus service contract

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson makes a point in a Hamilton County Board of Education meeting earlier this year.

Hamilton County Schools is set to release a new transportation contract for bids on Dec. 7 with the help of education consulting firm Lean Frog.

The district has been working with Lean Frog president and co-founder Bryan Headrick as it has put together a new request for proposal for the past several months for its $14 million to $16 million budget item: moving students to and from school on buses.

"Normally, we don't bring RFPs in and go into this much detail, but we're here at the request of the board," said Superintendent Bryan Johnson at a board work session Tuesday night.

Transportation has always been a hot-button topic in Hamilton County, even before the crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary students two years ago and the resulting turmoil with the county's current vendor, Durham School Services.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

The board has debated transportation policies and expectations from vendors in recent months and board members pushed for a work session to review them after its annual retreat earlier this month.

"Transportation is a huge piece of the budget," said District 4 board member Tiffanie Robinson, "but it is 100 percent the most important piece to keeping our students safe outside of school safety."

The district contracted Headrick to review the previous request for proposals it used two years ago when it renewed its contract with Durham for 165 bus routes.

Headrick said the changes his team made while working with the district's Chief Operations Officer Ken Bradshaw and Transportation Director David Eaves seek to increase competitiveness of applicants, open the potential to a variety of vendors and provide flexibility for both the vendor and the district.

He also noted that in conversation with board members, bus drivers, administrators and families, the district had expectations that were not outlined in the request for proposals and that have also stirred controversy and caused problems throughout its relationship with Durham.

"We have some performance expectations, communication expectations and operations expectations that we need to write down in the [request for proposals]," Headrick said.

The new request for proposals allows for the district to change the number of routes and asks for a price per day per bus for three years plus an additional add-on year from the vendor. Currently, the district has 165 routes operated by Durham and its drivers and 74 routes operated by independent bus contractors.

"The intent of this is we want to start the relationships with the vendor from the start with clear, set expectations on what's near and dear to our heart and what makes Hamilton County happy," Headrick said.

Board members also reviewed transportation policies, such as the use of independent bus contractors, which both Robinson and board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, of District 5, have noted are historically safer drivers but are able to choose their routes.

Policies reviewed included student discipline on buses, who is allowed to transport students and how students can be transported after hours to extracurricular activities or games, such as through individual activity buses.

One of the biggest potential policy changes - what students the district transports and where it transports them - was tabled for further discussion.

The board has long argued about transporting students to schools that are not within their zones, such as to magnet schools, and the discussion has grown with the launch of Future Ready Institutes, which currently do not provide transportation.

Currently the policy only promises transportation for students to their zoned schools, but practice doesn't match policy. Johnson recommended the board review that in hopes of better aligning the policy with the district's goals.

"We are almost, we are about halfway there to being a choice district" in regards to open enrollment," Johnson said.

Bradshaw hopes that a recommendation for a new vendor would be ready to be presented to the board at the January board meeting, but said that timeline is "a bit ambitious." February would be the latest the district hopes to approve a contract.

So far, the district has paid about $5,000 to Lean Frog for Headrick's consulting services, with the potential of paying up to $10,000, depending on scope of work, according to Bradshaw.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.