Hamilton County school board officially severs ties with Durham, approves new bus service contract

Busses pull up to drop students off during the first day of school on Thursday, August 13, 2015 at Battle Academy. (Could not photograph students leaving bus since due to lack of parental consent)

As of July 1, Hamilton County Schools' bus transportation will no longer be provided by Durham School Services.

With an 8-1 vote Thursday night, the school board approved a more than $11 million contract with First Student Inc., the new vendor it approved earlier this month.

The three-year contract ends the school district's controversial relationship with Durham, despite Durham's offer being at least $1 million less than First Student's. Durham found itself at the center of the deadly 2016 Woodmore Elementary school bus crash, after which one of its drivers was convicted in the deaths of six children, raising questions about safety.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

Providing about 78 buses for 176 school days will cost the district $403.65 per bus per day, an increase of almost $23 from the vendor's initial proposal.

The cost of the contract was not the point of contention during Thursday night's board meeting though.

Instead, District 3 board member Joe Smith said he'd have a hard time approving the contract without discussing a facilities agreement between the district and First Student.

Historically, bus vendors have used three parking facilities across the county to park buses when they are not being used, paying $1 a year for the facilities.

Smith is concerned, though, about the use of Hixson High School's parking lot for bus parking.

"I understand that transportation is a complex process and I know that Dr. Bradshaw and Dr. Johnson have been doing hard work to get it done, and I know it's the eleventh hour, I know that," Smith said. "I have some real issues about how we're parking those buses."

Smith has been working with the district's chief operations officer, Ken Bradshaw, for more than a year to relocate those buses and Bradshaw assured Smith Thursday night that it would remain a priority in the coming school year.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman was the only board member to eventually vote against the contract. She said she felt like the procurement process had been "bad business practice."

"I feel like we were put in a very bad position to be taken of advantage. I feel like First Student knew going in that we were in a position to take a new bus contract no matter what," Thurman said. "I don't feel like we are getting a million dollars worth from them. We are going to be getting the same bus drivers. We should be running this school system like a business and I don't think this is a really smart way to run it."

Superintendent Bryan Johnson and District 5 board member Karitsa Mosley Jones both interjected and kept the conversation on track at the meeting before board members also heard Johnson's budget proposal Thursday night.

"If we want to talk about business and we want to talk about money, let's talk about 2016 and six lives lost," Jones said, referring to the Woodmore bus tragedy that lead to the community's lack of confidence in Durham School Services.

The board's contract with First Student passed with a 8-1 vote.

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