The Hamilton County School Board is considering proposals from three different firms to transport students under a new four-year contract.
At a Thursday afternoon workshop, the board heard an evaluation of the competing school bus operators. Ben Coulter, transportation supervisor, presented the results of the study and comparison of bids from the current provider, Durham School Services, as well as First Student, Inc. and Ecco Ride. Durham has had the contract for the past seven years.
The Request for Proposals was received from the three bus companies, which all meet the list of qualifications that Hamilton County Schools require. The RFP included the request that a third camera be installed in every bus to record activities at the back of the vehicle. Previously each bus had only two, one on the steps and one facing down the aisle. Each bus must also have GPS equipment as well. The GPS can see where buses go and stop as well as recording the speeds they travel. Special needs buses will be equipped with integrated seating and air conditioning.
Evaluations of the proposals were based on the criteria of management capability, business stability, routing capability and human resource management as well as cost. The human resource element is especially important since it deals with the company’s recruiting process and background checking policy, it was stated. In a point system comparison, Durham was rated 90.5 overall. Ecco Ride was rated 60.75 and First Student was rated 75.25.
Durham also submitted the lowest cost for operating 190 vehicles, and employing 63 bus aides for 175 days, at a total of $11,598,944.50, for the first year of the contract. The base fuel cost specified in the RFP is $3.063 per gallon. A surcharge for fuel will be applied to compensate for increases of fuel based on the difference between the cost of wholesale diesel and the base fuel cost used in the RFP. These buses average six and a half miles per gallon which totals around $300,000 yearly for the surcharge.
Each year of the four-year contract, prices varied by company. The total four-year cost from Durham ended up being almost a half million dollars above the cost submitted by Ecco Ride.
“Based on overall scores, costs and all else, I recommend to enter negotiations with Durham,” said Mr. Coulter at the end of his presentation.
Board member Greg Martin commented that there was a major cost difference in the four-year costs between the two lowest bids, and asked if there were other reasons for Mr. Coulter’s recommendation. He answered that his decision was also based on previous experience with Durham. He said that Durham has presented itself better in non-monetary issues such as safety, training and employee turnover rates since they pay drivers a higher amount to reduce losing them.
Board member Jeffrey Wilson asked if consideration had been given to the age of the fleet since the buses being used were put into service in 2007. Time and again throughout the meeting he requested that new buses be figured into the RFPs and asked if equipment safety should be an issue. Other members joined to answer that they would prefer to have well-trained drivers and continuity. It was commented that Durham has stabilized drivers. Donna Horn asked about the differences in the buses being used now and new models. Mr. Coulter answered that the structures had not changed much, but they may have fewer EPA emissions. There would not be much impact with regard to safety for the kids, he said.
“I’d like to do the negotiations with Durham with the board’s permission” said Superintendent Rick Smith. Mr. Martin commented that by giving him the authority to do so was one way the school system may be able to save money this year. “$45 million is an awful lot of money” he added. It is the biggest vote the board has concerning costs, it was stated.
In addition to the large bus company that the schools work with, the county also employs 49 independent contract drivers who own their buses, and who as a group, enter into a totally separate contract with the Board of Education.
This year Durham is operating 190 daily routes in a three-tier system. Buses each serve three schools with start times for the schools offset every 45 minutes. There are 577 trips made each morning and 573 each afternoon. Statistics show that 18,931 miles are covered every day by this transportation system. There are a variety of students using the buses including regular education, K-12, exceptional education, K-12 (targeting individuals with disabilities and gifted students), ESOL students (English for speakers of other languages), alternative students (serving those with severe disabilities) and homeless students.
Some student transportation needs present challenges, the study noted. Special services need to be provided in some cases such as aides or nurses for exceptionally fragile students. Tracking and providing transportation is especially challenging for students that are homeless. The student must be provided transportation back to their school of origin.
In the Chattanooga area, churches step up to help homeless families, said Superintendent Smith, but this may mean moving from church to church in different areas weekly. The bus system is required to keep track of each student and provide access to the school they were originally enrolled in. In some circumstances a van service is contracted for these cases, since it is more cost effective than sending a large bus. County and state lines do not matter in providing this service. One bus may have to arrange to meet another bus to transfer a student to the ultimate destination.
The federal government makes this a requirement, but does not provide extra funding for these special services because it is considered to be a civil right, the board was told. Federal funding covers less than half the cost to make this very specialized transportation available. This population is increasing and the funding for this is decreasing said Mr. Coulter.