School Board Members Again Voice Support For Turning More School Buses Over To Owner Operators

Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Ben Coulter, county school transportation director, gives report on school bus program
Ben Coulter, county school transportation director, gives report on school bus program
- photo by Brent McDonald (See video on NewsChannel 9)

Several members of the county school board, at a finance committee meeting on Tuesday, again voice support for turning more school buses over to owner operators.

The statements came after the county schools face a possible new contract with Durham School Services, which had one of its drivers on Nov. 21 wreck and claim the lives of six Woodmore Elementary School students.

David Testerman said he had "strong misgivings" at the time that a prior board opted for a contract with the private First Student firm. He said it was done "because it was the cheapest."

Mr. Testerman said the primary consideration should be "the safety of the children."

Rhonda Thurman said steps need to be taken to bolster the 49 owner operators who remain, including giving them a new four-year contract.

Ms. Thurman said the schools should consider allowing the independent drivers to have more than one bus as Bradley County does.

She said possibly some of the current Durham drivers might be interested in taking over their own route.

Ms. Thurman said rules need to be changed that make it difficult for drivers to pass on their bus to family members or others.

Steve Highlander, board chairman, said the schools should consider allowing owner operators to park their buses at schools in order to avoid "dead-head" time for which they are not paid while driving the bus home.

Joe Smith, a new board member, said, "I'm encouraged to see more owner operators."

School officials said there would be a very quick turnaround time if the board wants to go out for proposals from other bus firms. There would also be a short window for studying the proposals, it was stated.

It was noted that a new bus firm would have to make a $25 million investment in new school buses and likely would want a contract for several years. A new school bus costs up to $115,000.

One suggestion was to give a one-year extension to the Durham firm.

Ms. Thurman also urged the schools to curb any busing that is not essential, such as for magnet schools.

She said, "Let's get it down and lean and as trim as we can."

Officials said benefits for the owner operators began to phase out in 2010 when the board decided to keep their number at 49.

They receive capacity pay as well as a mileage.reimbursement.

The total transportation budget is $15,692, including $11.7 million going to Durham and $3.4 million to the independent drivers.

The independent drivers get about $32,500 capacity pay and about $23,000 in mileage.


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