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UPDATE: Hamilton Co. school board members consider several options for school buses

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Students exit Hamilton County school bus 351 at a stop at the intersection of Hwy. 58 and Jewell Road in Chattanooga. TFP photo by Doug Strickland Students exit Hamilton County school bus 351 at a stop at the intersection of Hwy. 58 and Jewell Road in Chattanooga. TFP photo by Doug Strickland
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

UPDATE: The Hamilton County Board of Education is still discussing the future of its contract with Durham School Services. 

The company has been under fire since the Woodmore bus crash in November that killed six children. 

READ MORE | School board members discuss renewing contract with Durham School Services

On Thursday, board members weighed several options, including a  proposal to renew owner-operator contracts.

The finance committee recommended a two-year request for proposal (RFP) for busing contracts. It also recommends renewing contracts for owner operators by four years with the option to amend contracts. 

Some board members said they want to explore this option. 

"It's hard to say what I'm leaning toward right now but I certainly am excited to look at more owner operators coming in," School Board District 4, Board Member, Tiffanie Robinson. 

Robinson said the two-year RFP would ask companies to provide them with the most flexible option.

The proposal could also eliminate the deal with Durham, which expires in June. Though, the company could still express interest in the two-year contract within the RFP. 

"You can't remove Durham from the possibility of bidding the RFP for two years. You give them another year of opportunity. I don't mean it that way, but they have the right to bid on the two-year contract," said School Board District 5, Board Vice Chair, Karitsa Jones. 

Deciding how many bus routes owner-operators would take over is also up for debate. 200 routes are currently covered by Durham, and the district uses 49 owner operators. 41 of those drivers were asked what they're looking for if approved. 

"The first priority was four-year contract, which we've already mentioned. The second was insurance opportunities for all whether it's same rate or a different rate and the third was a better pay rate," said School Board District 9, Board Chairman, Dr. Steve Highlander. 

Robinson said more owner operators would lead to more accountability. 

"A number of these owner-operators have been driving for decades for our school system so it's a good opportunity for more people to come in but it also means the challenge of making sure that we've got the right people coming in as owner operators."

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lee McDade said an RFP will be ready to go out for the board to vote next week, and that the board can also talk to Durham about a one-year extension. 

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Christie Jordan said she is pulling together info for the board to determine how much it cost the district to increase the number of owner operators. 

The RFP needs to go out soon, and needs to close by March, to give the board the time to decide on a contract.


PREVIOUS STORY: Hamilton County school board members are deciding whether to continue their contract with school bus provider, Durham School Services.

They considered several options at a finance committee session on Tuesday in light of the deadly Woodmore bus crash from two months ago.

READ MORE | School board members discuss renewing contract with Durham School Services

One included using more independent contractors. They're also looking at extending Durham's contract for a year and phasing in more owner operators.

Board members said a decision has to be made by the beginning of March.

Channel 3 spoke with Jerry Green who has owned and operated a school bus in Hamilton County for more than four decades. He owns three of them including one for himself, his wife, and a spare in case one breaks down.

"It's our job and our responsibility to take care of the students and the routes and we try to do it adequately every day," Jerry Green, an independent bus contractor said. 

Hamilton County school board members are looking at the possibility of phasing in more independent contractors like Green to take up additional and maybe even all of the bus routes.

They're considering this since the contract with Durham School Services is up in June. The school system's contract with owner operators is also up the same month.

"Our local contractors were people that you knew, that kids knew, that parents knew and they were like having extra staff people," David Testerman, a school board member said.

School system records show they have 240 buses on the road. 191 are from Durham and 49 are provided by owner operators.

The biggest issue board members face is time, but that's not stopping them from vetting all options.

"This isn't only a numbers game. This is a question of who's going to take the best care of our kids and who's going to create the safest environment for them," Tiffanie Robinson, another school board member said.

Right now, they aren't sure how much each option will cost.

The district spends about $15 million a year on transportation. $11 million of that budget goes to Durham and owner operators take up $1.5 million.

"The transportation issue right now that we're talking about is far more than just a money factor," Testerman said.

Some school officials said they preferred independent contractors taking over the bus routes, but they realize this can't happen all at once.

Drivers like Green said they're up for the challenge.

"If the compensation is there where we can get some new owner operators that can feasibly make it and get by owning and operating buses, I think we can do well," Green said.

Other options include bringing in another company or possibly taking all of this in house.

Board members will have to move fast since they need to decide by next Thursday whether they'll start accepting bids for a new school bus company to take over from Durham.

In response to Tuesday's finance committee session, Durham issued the following statement:

"We don't want to speculate on the future; we are currently focused on working with the district and fulfilling our contract."

School Patrol

David Carroll covers education news and issues at schools across the Tennessee Valley.

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