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Meeting Info

The Hamilton County Board of Education will meet for a strategic planning session at Central High School tonight and Saturday. Tonight’s meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and Saturday’s session begins at 8 a.m.

The feasibility of Hamilton County schools bringing busing in-house and expanding the role of its pool of independent bus drivers was discussed Thursday night during the school board's meeting.

The district could save about $1.9 million a year by taking over busing, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Christie Jordan told the board. It would cost about $12.7 million a year for the district to run buses and continue contracting with its 49 independent bus owners/operators, according to Jordan's calculations.

School board member Rhonda Thurman was quick to point out that the estimate does not include what it would cost the district to buy a bus fleet, which is expected to cost about $10 million for used buses and more than $20 million for new ones.

"Every time we try to do something ourselves, it doesn't seem to work out," Thurman said, cautioning the board about unforeseen costs and hurdles they'll likely face taking over transportation.

The district currently spends about $15 million a year on transportation, $11 million of which goes to Durham School Services, the company contracted by the board to run about 200 routes. Durham's contract expires this summer, but due to the Nov. 21 crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary students, the company has offered to extend its contract with the district for one year, while continuing to offer the numerous new safety features it added to its buses following the fatal crash.

During the four-hour meeting, the board decided to postpone its vote to issue a request for proposals for the busing contract. The board did vote unanimously to extend the independent drivers' contracts for four years, noting that it can amend the contracts in the future to give the drivers more routes and adjust their compensation.

Last year, the district spent about $53,000 per bus operated by Durham and $63,000 for each of the the 49 buses operated by its independent contractors, Jordan said. This estimated cost does not include the $1,000 Hamilton County schools pays for liability insurance on each of the 49 independent drivers.

School employees told the board the cost is higher for independent drivers because the district provides a majority of the drivers with insurance benefits, which cost about $9,500 each. Thirty-five of the district's independent drivers' benefits were grandfathered in years ago, and the drivers are now asking the board to provide all independent drivers with benefits.

Jordan warned the board that providing the drivers with benefits could set a dangerous precedent, as these drivers are considered part-time, and other part-time employees do not get benefits.

The school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, said the district takes the position that independent drivers are not employees, but that line may get blurry if these drivers are all receiving benefits.

Independent drivers also want to be able to own and operate at least three buses and routes, as they are now limited to just one. The drivers are asking the board to give them 100 additional routes, leaving the district with about 90 routes — mostly to inner-city schools — uncovered.

Jason Welch, an independent bus driver who has driven in the district for 16 years, asked the board to consider the way it pays drivers, saying they want to make a flat rate of $340 per route each day and be guaranteed 180 days of pay.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson asked if the independent drivers would consider providing the district with a system to track complaints about drivers, like Durham recently has, or if the board would need to purchase that.

Welch said he's open to investigating either option.

"We get a lot of complaints the district doesn't know about," Welch added. "They are handled at the bus stop."

Thurman, along with several other school board members, voiced support for the independent drivers' safety record and the history they have with families in the district.

The board also voted to extend its custodial contract with ABM for 11 months. Board members said they've received complaints from principals and teachers about the quality of ABM's work, and school officials told them they've discussed the concerns with the company and can rebid the contract later this year, if needed.

School board member Joe Smith pointed out that the district is juggling a lot with the superintendent search and the busing decision.

"I can't imagine you guys having to handle another [request for proposals] right now," Smith said. "I think this is wise for you to do this, and just a good common sense approach. Sometimes we don't do that."

The Hamilton County Commission, which holds the school district's purse strings, has been debating giving the district $500,000 to repair the track at Central High School. The commission tabled a vote on Wednesday, but the board was asked to approve the funding in case it came back up for a vote.

The board unanimously voted to table a decision on receiving those funds from the commission.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, along with Robinson and Thurman, voiced concern about accepting the money to fix a track when the district has many other facilities in dire repair. Thurman proposed the money instead be used for a school construction project at a school in desperate need of repair like Harrison Elementary.

Mosley Jones told the board she's worried that accepting these funds could set a bad precedent, and urged the board and the community to reset its priorities.

"We spend a lot of time talking about buses and balls and buildings," Mosley Jones said. "I'm worried about [students] running the test scores up."

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

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