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Contract negotiations between Hamilton County Schools and its independent contract bus drivers remain tense as the deadline to finalize the contract quickly approaches.

The Hamilton County Board of Education's transportation committee met with more than two dozen of the district's drivers Wednesday night and tried to negotiate portions of the contract for more than an hour.

School board member Joe Wingate told the drivers the district wants them behind the wheel, but it is also tasked with ensuring there are some accountability measures written into the contract.

"It's not a gotcha game," he said. "We're just trying to do our due diligence."

After the fatal Nov. 21, 2016, Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, the board made the push to hire more independent contact drivers, boasting about their safety record. The independent drivers own and operate their own buses for the district and last school year covered 49 of the district's nearly 250 routes.

The board voted in January to set aside an additional 20 routes for independent drivers this upcoming school year, as the driver in the November crash was employed by Durham School Services, the company the board contracts to provide a majority of its busing services.

The independent drivers Wednesday night voiced concerns about the proposed compensation and the monetary penalties written into the contract for things such as missing stops, not having a working GPS or camera system, and failing to report accidents.

School board member Rhonda Thurman said the contract needs to be signed by June 30, and she advocated that the board attempt to meet many of the drivers' requests to get contracts finalized.

In the past, the school system offered independent drivers insurance and benefits, but that stopped years ago. A grandfather clause allows about 35 drivers to still receive those benefits from the district. The board decided earlier this year to offer the newer drivers who do not receive benefits an additional $9,500 to help cover those costs and boost compensation.

The proposed contract pays drivers who receive insurance benefits slightly more per mile and for each student riding their bus. But newer drivers not receiving benefits complained that it's not fair for them to not be paid the same and not receive a raise this year.

But Wingate pointed out that they are receiving an additional $9,500.

"That's a raise to me," he said.

Thurman proposed the district look to see how much more it would cost to compensate all of the drivers the same, noting that the district should be able to find the money.

Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of student services, said he would look into the cost and get the information to the board.

But school board chairman Steve Highlander said he was doubtful more money can be found.

"We have a pretty tight budget right now," he said.

After the meeting, driver Jerry Green said he's hopeful all drivers will receive the same pay.

"The new drivers coming on are doing the same work we are," said Green, who said he's been driving a bus for 45 years.

Drivers also voiced frustrations about the monetary penalties in the contract, which are similar to the penalties in the district's contract with Durham.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson said the wording of the penalties is too vague and could have a wide range of interpretations.

"I'm OK with keeping people accountable," she said. "But how can you keep people accountable if they can't prove they're doing their job?"

After a heated debate, board members instructed their attorney to remove many of the monetary penalties from the contract, opting for a written warning system instead. The board plans to continue working to finalize the contract with the drivers in coming days.

Last school year, it cost the district about $397 a day for each route driven by an independent contract driver, and $325 a day for each route covered by Durham.

Earlier this month, the board renewed its contract with Durham for two years.

Since the crash, Durham has installed smart cameras in every Hamilton County bus it operates, launched an online complaint management system, hired new monitors to help drivers with behavior management on selected routes, increased entry level pay from $13.30 to $15 an hour, and bolstered the company's safety team at the corporate level.

After the crash, the school board issued a request for proposals to see if any other bus company would be interested in taking over Durham's contract, which is set to expire this summer. But no other company submitted a bid, leaving the board with little option but to renew its contract with Durham.

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

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