Hamilton County school board accepts new bus provider proposal, ends contract with Durham

A school bus is seen parked at the East Hamilton High School on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Latricia Lloyd, a driver for Durham, waits in bus number 388 to pick up students at the end of the day at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County school board members accepted a proposal from First Student Inc. for a new bus service Thursday night, effectively ending its contract with Durham School Services at the end of this school year.

Board members also learned from Chief Financial Officer Brent Goldberg that the district could expect at least a 3 percent bump in revenue next year from the county as a result of expected growth in property tax revenues.

Student Transportation Proposal Comparison

Durham> Bus type: 72-84, new> Cost per bus per day: $349.61> Number of days: 176> Number of buses: 165> Cost for bus aide: $16.17/hour*> Total projected base fee: $10,152,674.40First Student> Bus type: 78, new> Cost per bus per day: $380.84> Number of days: 176> Number of buses: 165> Cost for bus aide: $17.09/hour*> Total projected base fee: $11,059,593.60*The base fee does not include bus aides, fuel adjustments and miscellaneous transportation programsSource: Hamilton County Schools

Going with First Student will cost the district nearly $1 million more than Durham's bid, but Superintendent Bryan Johnson's administrative team recommended the bid based on a variety of factors, including safety features and a new bus fleet.

The proposal was approved in a 7-1 vote, with District 9 board member Steve Highlander abstaining and District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman voting against it.

Highlander said he could not vote for spending more money without knowing specifically how much more funding the school district can count on or where a funding increase would come from. He pushed Johnson to provide the board with a line-by-line budget.

"We don't know what our general revenue growth is, and we don't know what we're going to get from the county commission," Highlander said. "I'd like to know before I vote exactly what we are spending more than last year and where any cuts, if any, are going to come from."

Goldberg said he is confident the district would see at least $1 million more in revenue growth.

"And I think we will have more than $1 million in revenue growth," Goldberg told board members.

Last year, the district received $144 million in local tax revenue from Hamilton County, including property taxes, state-mandated drinking tax revenue and PILOT taxes.

First Student's proposal will cost the district $380.84 per bus per day next year. For the estimated 165 buses the district has routed, that comes out to $11,059,593. The cost per bus per day with Durham was estimated to be around $349.61, but with Goldberg's assurance that the district could expect more revenue, most school board members said the increase in spending was worth it.

Since Nov. 21, 2016, when six children from Woodmore Elementary School were killed in a bus crash involving a Durham-operated bus, many community members have rallied and urged the school board to end its contract with Durham.

District 5 board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, who represents Woodmore, had to make a video call into Thursday's meeting. She said she receives the most calls from constituents about buses and bus safety.

"We all know about the six precious lives that we lost on Nov. 21. Though we all know that we have to be good stewards of taxpayer money, six lives to $1 million is precious to me," she said. "What I know to be true is that I am elected to speak for the people I represent and the people I represent want us to make a decision."

When Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, reminded the board that it was not required to vote Thursday, and as Highlander pushed for more funding information, Mosley Jones and several fellow board members said their votes would not change.

"I can tell you that from this point, my vote is not going to change from today to April 18 to whenever because of the concerns that have been expressed to me about Durham," Mosley Jones said. "I know we have to be good stewards of money, but we're also stewards of lives."

Board members also discussed whether the district hoped to add more independent contract drivers, something it had expressed as a desire in 2016 after the crash. About two dozen independent bus drivers have been added since 2016, according to Transportation Manager David Eaves, but independent contractors cost the district closer to $430 per bus per day.

Johnson said that the bidding process, which started in November, was particularly sensitive to what the community has been through regarding buses.

"Because six children died in this community. Because six children died, and I was not here for that, because of the sensitivity of that, we have tried to be [methodical] throughout this process," he said.

Hamilton County Schools transports more than 21,000 students a day in a "complex, three-tiered" system, Chief Operations Office Ken Bradshaw told the board.

First Student promises to provide 78 new passenger buses to the district for 176 school days. The cost accepted Thursday is the base cost for transportation. It does not include the cost of the district's contract drivers, or the cost for bus aides and monitors, which are required on the district's 64 special education buses.

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