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A wrecker removes the school bus from the scene of a crash on Talley Road on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Six children died and dozens more were injured.

Last-minute conversation about the Hamilton County Board of Education's bus service contract and janitorial contract last week points up again that our school system's central office has been asleep at the wheel for some time.

There has been significant conversation since the deadly Woodmore Elementary School bus crash in November that the school district should consider hiring a new bus contractor for the coming school year.

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But on Wednesday Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Lee McDade told board members that likely won't be possible. Despite the fact that a contract with Durham School Services expires in 2017, it may be "too late" to change course because choosing another bus service would require a months-long process and request for proposals — all of which would be difficult to finish in time for the next school year.

While it's true that the tragic bus accident happened only about a month ago, surely school administrators have a calendar and should have given a thought or two some six months or a year ago that exploring new bids might be in order, if for no other reason than to ensure they were still getting a good service and bang for taxpayers' bucks.

Instead, McDade told school board members that Durham, which signed a four-year contract with Hamilton County in 2013, is willing to accept a one-year contract in the wake of the crash. The company also has pledged some dramatic strides in student safety since the accident.

Durham CEO David Duke told the Times Free Press earlier this month that the firm would hire 30 more bus monitors locally, install smart cameras on all buses and implement an improved system to track complaints against drivers.

Police said the 24-year-old, first-year driver of the Woodmore bus was traveling 20 mph over the speed limit on the narrow, windy Talley Road when he lost control of the bus and it rolled into telephone pole and tree — splitting open. The driver already had accumulated complaints from a number of parents, students and teachers, and he had been involved in a previous accident. The driver himself also had complained — about student misbehavior on the bus.

Durham's CEO said the company had received six complaints, and only two were about speeding.

But the bus contract isn't the only example of school administrators' apparently lax action, and that clearly seemed to frustrate board members last week.

The subject of extending a custodial contract with ABM sounded like a repeat of the Durham discussion — minus a tragedy. Some board members said ABM has given poor service, and they pointed to instances of unclean facilities and shortages of supplies such as toilet paper as consistent problems.

McDade said the ABM agreement, like the Durham contract, is complex and would require a months-long process to change gears, making it difficult to switch before the next school year.

New board member Joe Wingate asked whose responsibility it was to bring up the contract in time to consider any needed changes.

McDade's answer was that about $1 million was saved on both the ABM and Durham contracts in 2013, but they should have been revisited earlier this year and "I'll take the heat for that."

It's admirable that McDade is willing to fall on his sword, but in an organization the size of the Hamilton County Schools and in a major metropolitan county like ours, responsibility must be a shared obligation. It is unnerving that McDade, and apparently other administrators, after failing to take care of key job responsibilities, remain so quick to settle for what the school district already has.

From all indications, our new board members get that — as was pointed up by their answers when — for the first time — members of the board spoke Wednesday by conference call with Coleman Lew and Associates, the search firm hired to find a new superintendent. You might recall that former superintendent Rick Smith resigned nearly nine months ago. Repeat — nearly nine months ago. Yet only Wednesday did our board talk to the firm about what we need.

Kenneth Carrick Jr., president and managing director of the firm, asked three questions: What is working well in Hamilton County? What is not, and what challenges will be faced by applicants for the job?

Goodness gracious. Where should we start?

The newest board members mentioned lawsuits, test scores, poor public perception, money problems, politics and missed opportunities for partnerships with area industry.

In a word: Leadership, and the lack thereof.

It's interesting that a favorite new educational buzz word for our school administrators about improving student performance is student "engagement."

Perhaps what we really need in our schools are school administrators (and board members, too) who are willing, at long last, to show "engagement."

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