published Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Durham School Services gets backing on Hamilton County Schools bus bid

BUS BIDS

Here are the total costs of four-year bids for school bus transportation services:

* Durham: $45.6 million

* Ecco Ride: $45.1 million

* First Student: $48.4 million

BY THE NUMBERS

Here's how Durham School Services stacks up with its contract with Hamilton County Schools. The numbers don't include 49 other routes driven by independent contractors.

* 18,931 -- miles driven per day

* 3.2 million -- miles driven each year

* $14.5 million -- total annual cost

* 239 -- routes

* 9,500-plus -- daily stops

* $65,000-70,000 -- projected transportation savings from school cancellation

The Hamilton County Board of Education hopes to shave some costs from a $45.6 million bid for countywide student busing services.

District administrators recommended the board continue contracting with Durham School Services, though the company's bid was about half a million more than the low bidder, Ecco Ride. Another bid from First Student, a previous Hamilton County contractor, was almost $3 million higher.

Durham and First Student are the nation's largest providers of school bus services. And central office administrators were unsure whether Ecco Ride, a much smaller company, could service a district of Hamilton County's size.

Board members instructed the superintendent on Thursday to negotiate with Durham to score a lower price than the original bid. But Durham's bid already put next year's price of busing about $600,000 less than this year's cost, transportation director Ben Coulter said.

And officials say the county already has one of the leanest school transportation programs around. Coulter said most school systems this size operate 300 to 350 buses. Durham operates 239. And another 49 routes are operated by independent contractors.

"There is nowhere else in this country operating this efficiently," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

Outside of hiring the superintendent, board member Jeffrey Wilson said choosing a bus service provider is one of the board's most important decisions. He wondered whether using a company like First Student, which would bring in new buses, could improve safety. But officials said there's virtually no safety difference between a new bus and Durham's 2007 model buses. Wilson said he wants more involvement in the process of selecting a contractor.

"This is probably the most expensive contract the elected school board will approve," he said. "There are a myriad of issues that I think should have been flushed out."

After a transportation work session, board members unanimously approved renewing agreements with its 49 independent contract drivers, which are not Durham employees but hold direct contracts with the district. The independent drivers are a vestige of the old county school system. They receive a daily rate based on miles driven and available seats on their buses. Those drivers will receive a 3 percent reimbursement increase annually through 2016.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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