The Hamilton County Department of Education building is shown in this file photo.

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The embattled bus company

Under a tight time constraint, members of the Hamilton County Board of Education want to consider their options before voting to renew the system's bus contract with Durham School Services for another year.

A spotlight was placed on the district's busing services after the fatal Woodmore Elementary school bus crash on Nov. 21. The crash prompted the school board to question its $45 million, four-year contract with Durham, set to expire this summer.

Lee McDade, assistant superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, warned the board that changing a bus contract as large as the county's takes months and would be difficult to complete before the new school year. Durham provides the district with about 200 of its 250 buses, and only a handful of companies nationally are large enough to handle this type of contract.

Several school board members still want to send out a request for proposals, allowing companies to bid on the job. The school board's finance committee is holding a meeting today and plans to discuss the request and whether the district should overhaul its busing system.

"It's important we spend a solid amount of time on this process and don't just jump to a conclusion or decision," said Tiffanie Robinson, chairwoman of the finance committee. "I think the community deserves us to look at all the options."

Newly appointed school board member Joe Smith agrees all options should be considered and is urging the board to send out the request for proposals.

"Let's not shut any doors," Smith said.

He's concerned district leaders advised the board against considering other transportation contracts because of time constraints.

"There were a lot of complaints [about Durham's drivers] before we had the crash," Smith said.

Since the crash, Durham has implemented a series of safety upgrades, including a complaint management system, smart cameras on buses and additional behind-the-wheel evaluations of drivers.

Durham also told the Times Free Press in December that Hamilton County Schools did not send them all the complaints about speeding they received about 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, who was driving the Woodmore bus that crashed. The company's CEO David Duke argued the company could act only on the information it was given by the school district.

Some school board members are concerned that changing bus contracts will not necessarily increase safety, because a new contractor would likely pay low wages and hire from the same pool of drivers as Durham. Board members have advocated the district hire more independent contract drivers who own their buses or the district buying its own fleet.

Before the county and city school districts merged in 1997, the city 0wned its bus fleet and hired drivers, and the county signed contracts with independent bus owners. In 2002, Hamilton County Schools first contracted out transportation as a way to cut costs.

In deciding what to do next, Robinson said the board cannot solely focus on the most cost-effective option.

"Initially cost is off the table," she said. "Right now, safety is important."

It's estimated that getting back into the transportation business would cost the county more than $20 million. It's also not certain that the local workforce can meet the district's demand for independent drivers, as it's a part-time job and owning a bus is a large investment.

Ben Coulter, Hamilton County Schools transportation supervisor, is expected to update the board today about the district's 49 independent contractors and provide a financial overview of how transportation services work and the logistics that go into the operation.

School board Chairman Steve Highlander said there are "positives and negatives with every option [the board] has to consider."

In the future, Highlander hopes district employees alert the board about contracts up for renewal further in advance, allowing the board ample time to send out a request for proposals if needed.

If the board chooses to renew its contract with Durham for a year, Highlander believes, it will give them more time to consider other options in the future.

Robinson hopes the board's comprehensive review of transportation will provide a thorough due-diligence process it will use when examining future contracts and operations.

When looking at overhauling the district's transportation, Robinson said, she wants to know about the financial and logistical realities of each option and consider thoughts from central office administrators.

"At the end of the day, they are the ones that have to implement these plans," Robinson said. "I want to know if they can pull it off."

Robinson said she also wants the community to have time to weigh in on the options, and that stakeholders and vendors also have voices.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.