Hamilton County School district to consider new bus contractor

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross  /  Teachers help students load onto buses Oct. 4 following dismissal at Battle Academy
Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Teachers help students load onto buses Oct. 4 following dismissal at Battle Academy

The Hamilton County school district's $13 million contract with its busing provider, First Student, is set to expire at the end of June. And though the district has had its share of issues with First Student, primarily due to a nationwide bus driver shortage, it may be the best option, officials said.

Bid proposals were solicited in October, and just two companies responded: First Student and Zum, a California-based student transportation company.

Administrators recommended First Student to the Board of Education during Thursday night's board meeting.

The recommendation was based on evaluation criteria such as cost, business stability and quality of service. Officials said First Student's proposal was more detailed.

"The safety program and details provided by First Student were again more in-depth in detail than those provided by Zum," the recommendation letter stated. "Additionally, First Student presented a better understanding of what our district needs are and were able to speak to those in their proposal, such as their operations with safety meetings, call handling and coordination with the district for future improvements through customer and community engagement. Zum's safety details were found to be general in nature and lacked specific in-depth details."

The board will vote on the matter in February, but Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, asked if the board could meet with Zum before making a final decision.

"I would like to hear from the people who put in the (request for proposals)," Jones said. "I would like to hear from Zum."

Superintendent Justin Robertson said a virtual presentation with Zum can be arranged.

"Just know, when we put out the (request for proposal), there were things that they had to meet, and they did not meet some things," Brandon Allen, district director of transportation, told board members. "They only have 800 buses, First Student has over 46,000."

Jones also asked if both companies did thorough background checks on their employees.

"I think the public is very aware that I stay with my thumb on busing because of 2016," Jones said.

In 2019, the district ended its contract with its former bus provider Durham School Services, whose driver was at the wheel when six students from Woodmore Elementary School died in a crash in 2016. In the years following the crash, it was discovered Durham knew the driver, then-25-year-old Johnthony Walker, had a history of speeding and reckless driving -- including nodding off while driving and intentionally braking and swerving to cause children to hit their heads -- but did nothing about it, according to court records.

Walker was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in March 2018.

Board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga, echoed Jones' request to meet with Zum.

"The board did really want to be engaged in that process last go around because of the very unfortunate events of 2016," Robinson said.

Between August 2021 and October 2022, Hamilton County Schools penalized First Student nearly $480,000 in fines for failed service routes and other performance violations, according to documents previously obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

First Student failed to run roughly 90 routes each month, forcing some buses to cover more than one at a time.

And parents have been frustrated.

"The bus stop that my girls get on, it is way overcrowded," Lynesha Lake, whose two daughters attend The Howard School, told the Times Free Press previously. "Most days, they either have to send another bus, or the kids are three to a seat instead of two."

Board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, said her constituents have been very concerned.

"I've consistently heard from my district, my community, specifically around First Student's inability to get Howard students to school on time," Black said.

Allen said the situation at The Howard School has been addressed, but there remains a shortage of drivers.

"First Student, they are short on some drivers, I mean it's nationwide," Allen said. "We're making it work with the driver shortage."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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