With the Warren County School Board poised to award the county’s school busing duties to a private company, both drivers and county officials are leery of the move to privatize the county-run department.
“We would ask you to delay your decision until later next month to give time for more study,” said County Executive John Pelham, who addressed the School Board at its special meeting Thursday night at Dibrell Elementary with numerous bus drivers on hand.
The School Board unanimously voted to wait until mid-May, but agreed to go ahead with drawing up a contract with Durham Bus Services for bus service next school year.
“We are concerned because we are getting a lot of calls from our constituents about this,” said County Commissioner Terry Bell, noting the Warren County Commission has been left out of the loop even though it funds a major part of the annual school budget. “We would just like some information about what is going on.”
Greg Walter with Durham Bus Services was on hand and explained his company’s position on contracting to do business with the school system, noting he sees an annual savings of between $120,000 and $150,000 from the current county bus budget.
“If we didn’t think we could save you money from your current budget then we wouldn’t be here tonight,” said Walter, noting his company has an escape clause where schools can get out of the contract if they are not satisfied. “We’ve been doing business for 94 years and no one has ever opted out.”
Walter said his company intends on hiring present school bus employees and has even calculated raises and medical benefits in the bid estimate. He also said his company will be putting up a $5,000 scholarship to be awarded locally next year.
Walter pointed out his company efficiently runs buses and through savings of volume purchases is able to save money on numerous items such as the purchase of new buses. Walter said the county has an option to lease its buses to his company or even sell them at fair market value.
Otherwise, Walter said his company can save an average of $10,000 per purchase of new buses because it buys about 2,000 buses a year for its nationwide operation. In Tennessee, Durham does busing for schools in Memphis and Chattanooga. Walter also said his company is dedicated to the community and plans on purchasing items such as tires locally.
Commissioners expressed concerns the bus company might change routes and not stop at each residence as is policy now. However, Walter said his company follows each county’s rules on pick-ups so if it is policy to stop at each house, then the buses will stop at each student’s house. Walter pointed out the company uses GPS systems to map out the most efficient routes of running its buses, thereby saving fuel costs.
School Board member Bill Zechman said the whole idea of privatizing the bus department is to cut costs given lean economic times.
“We are thinking outside the box trying to reduce costs,” said Zechman, noting the potential savings are too much to pass up. “We owe it to the taxpayers and the students since this money could be spent elsewhere. I can see three teaching positions that could open.”
Walter said his company could wait until the end of May and still begin service next school year but noted it would be the sooner the better given the need to install GPS systems into the county’s fleet of buses.
School bus drivers on hand were unsettled about the plan, questioning the truthfulness of Walter’s statements.