Hamilton County Schools has only two contractors from which to choose for its next bus contract, despite paying a consultant nearly $40,000 for help with its bid process.
The district's current provider, Durham School Services, and First Student Inc. were the only companies to submit a bid, after a third company backed out of its response to a request for proposals released in December.
District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson was disappointed upon hearing the news during Thursday's school board meeting.
"We only had two bids? I have not been told this information. This is news to me. I don't know how we as a board can possibly move forward with Durham as our provider. That's awful to hear," she said.
Discussion of the bids were part of a larger conversation about transportation that came up during a debate about allocating an additional $20,000 to the consulting service, Lean Frog, that the board has been using since last fall.
Lean Frog helped the district with the bid process and has been working with the transportation department to improve the efficiency of its operations, said David Eaves, transportation supervisor for the district.
The consultant has taken a look at school start times, routes, bus capacity and the efficiency of the current state of the department, which Eaves said is understaffed.
Board members Tucker McClendon, of District 8, and Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, were against paying more for Lean Frog's work.
McClendon said he was disappointed by the response to the bid, which he said Lean Frog claimed would be stronger.
"I'm disappointed that we are going to have to look at two companies that we have not had good dealings with," McClendon said. "It will be a struggle for us, a tough pill to swallow for us to go with Durham again. I'm disappointed that the response hadn't met my expectations."
The board begrudgingly agreed to a new contract with Durham in 2017, despite significant community concerns after six Woodmore Elementary students were killed in a bus crash in November 2016. Since then, the district has struggled to balance its contract with Durham and independent bus contractors, while responding to community concerns.
Therefore, many board members agreed that the district needed "all the help it could get" when it came to transportation decisions.
"We need to make sure our ship is tight, so when something happens, God forbid something else happens, we need to know we did our part," said District 5 school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones. "Prior to 2016, we had some issues with busing, but coming back to November 2016, out of that came a coalition of community members who asked certain things of us, and continue to ask certain things of us."
"What happened in November 2016, that is priceless and I don't want to live through that again," she added.
Board Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, said the current conversation about investing in better technology and infrastructure for the district's transportation department, combined with the fact that only two bids were submitted, would accelerate the possibility of the district taking over its bus services.
"I think it's going to accelerate the discussion," Wingate said. "We are going to have to be innovative and creative with how we transport students."
The board voted Thursday to continue consulting with Lean Frog and also approved an investment in new routing software, Transfinder. The software will allow district officials to analyze routing systems, simulate new routes and changes, and follow buses in real-time via GPS monitoring.
The new software and its real-time tool, Viewfinder, will not allow parents to track their child's school bus in real-time as previously reported. School board members asked for clarifications from Eaves and Matt Egan, a Transfinder sales consultant who was present at Thursday's meeting.
The board does not yet have a recommendation from operations staff for a new transportation contract, and Superintendent Bryan Johnson said he anticipated the need for a work session to discuss the way forward before the board did vote on a new contract.
"We spent over $15 million a year on transportation. We have to get this right," Johnson said.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.