Hamilton County school board hears proposals from two potential bus vendors

Hamilton County school board hears proposals from two potential bus vendors

March 11th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Schools COO Kenneth Bradshaw is seen before the start of a school board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools COO Kenneth Bradshaw is seen...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Hamilton County Schools could have a new bus vendor by the end of the month.

Representatives from two transportation vendors presented proposals to the board of education during a work session Monday.

The presentations are the next step in the process that began in December when the district launched a request for proposal for bus services. Durham School Services, the district's current vendor, was one of two companies that submitted a bid. First Student Inc. was the second.

School board members have been vocal about their hesitancy to sign another contact with Durham, despite having done so just months after the Woodmore bus crash in 2016 that left six children dead and dozens injured.

Since then, some board members have been firm in their resolve to find something better for the $14-16 million they spend yearly on transporting kids, but some were also disappointed by the weak response to the district's request for proposal.

"We only had two bids?" asked District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson at the board's February meeting. "I don't know how we as a board can possibly move forward with Durham as our provider. That's awful to hear."

Board members asked few questions of Durham or First Student on Monday night. They were prompted by their consultant, Bryon Headrick of Lean Frog, that Monday's presentations were meant as information only and that negotiations were still happening before the transportation department would have an official recommendation to bring before the board.

Many board members were impressed by the First Student presentation. The transportation company is one of the nation's largest. It operates 42,000 buses and 50,000 daily routes, transporting more than 5 million students daily.

Dalton Public Schools, where First Student operates 42 buses, has contracted with the vendor for nearly 40 years, according to company president Dennis Maple.

Conversations with both vendors centered around safety, with both Durham and First Student representatives acknowledging the tragedy that occurred in Hamilton County.

"I would imagine the way to build credibility with your parents and the broader community is to partner alongside you," Maple said. "It just takes a cultural component to being partners. I don't want to just be your vendor."

Durham's presentation focused on many of the safety upgrades recommended — and in some cases required — since the district last negotiated its contract in 2016.

Since the deadly Nov. 21, 2016 crash, Durham was committed to implementing a compliant or feedback management system, naming a chief safety officer and installing cameras in each bus.

Gary Waits, chief executive officer, emphasized that Durham was the only company that truly knew Hamilton County and the community's needs.

"I know you're not looking for the lowest cost with this process, but you're looking for the most value," Waits said.

Since the crash, Waits said, as far as student safety Durham has become the national leader.

A recommendation has not been brought to the board by system Chief Operations Officer Ken Bradshaw and Transportation Director David Eaves. Bradshaw said that might happen before the end of the month.

A new bus contract is not on the agenda for the school board's Thursday regular session, but Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the board potentially could meet again later this month to vote on a contract.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


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