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UPDATE: Hamilton Co. school board considering expanding owner operators

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

UPDATE: The Hamilton County Board of Education voted on adding more bus routes for owner operators/independent drivers. 

Board members voted 6-3 for 20 more bus routes for independent drivers. 

District 8 board member, David Testerman, district 1 board member, Rhonda Thurman, and district 3 board member, Joe Smith voted NO, suggesting the board vote in favor of 50 routes. 

Jason Welch, the spokesperson for the district's independent drivers says he's confident they will eventually take over all of the district's routes. 

"Obviously we would like to have more, but you know I feel pretty good about the direction the board is going," said Welch. "What we offer is an excellent product and our safety is the top in the nation." 

Assistant superintendent, Lee McDade said if they offer those 20 new drivers full benefits it would cost $1.2 million. He recommended the board first allow additional independent drivers to pick up additional routes, and then let new drivers pick up routes.

But drivers for Durham School Services, like Jenelle Owens said she feels left out. 

"No one has ever sat down with Durham drivers to see about you know how this platform should go about," Owens said.

Owens believes the board's decision on the heels of the Woodmore bus crash created two sides. 

"We're all bus drivers, all under one umbrella and we're being boxed and set aside you know and it's whether this group is good or this group is bad and it shouldn't be like that."

But fear of job loss is what worries her most. 

"If you're gonna get rid of Durham just say look we're getting rid of you all you might wanna look for another job," Owens said.

Welch said Durham drivers will be considered for future hires, and that seniority will be considered. 

"They don't need to feel anxious they're not gonna be laid off or anything like that I mean we will look for the best that we can get and that will be the first place we start," said Welch. 

Including Durham drivers is something several board members advocated for, including McDade.

"I don't wanna tell Jason Welch who he has to hire to drive a bus, but I can say Jason I wanna take care of as many drivers as I can and you're gonna have to interview them," McDade said.

Thurman also mentioned opportunities for Durham drivers. 

"There are some bus drivers who they're gonna reach higher and that will give some of the people that driver for Durham an opportunity to buy their bus and buy their route," Thurman said. 

Owens said she just hopes the future of school transportation in Hamilton County benefits everyone. 

Board members also unanimously voted on a four year Request for Proposal (RFP) to get more bids from outside busing companies. It includes 30 bus monitors, salary increase, and safety requirements.

Stay with WRCBtv.com for updates to this story. 


PREVIOUS STORY: The future of the Hamilton County school district's bus transportation is still uncertain.

The contract with Durham School Services expires in June, and questions are lingering after the Woodmore bus crash.

On Thursday, board members unanimously voted to extend owner operator's contracts for four years, with the possibility of amending contracts to give drivers more routes and make changes to their compensation.

Owner operator, Jerry Green, said he hopes the board moves forward with bringing on more owner operators. 

"We took a lot of hard hits and took a lot of reductions and lost a lot of our owner operators that were really good people so we're trying to work back and hopefully the board will give us a chance," said Green.

Green has been an owner operator for since 1975, and has been on the same route in the Middle Valley area for 38 years. 

"Fuzzy" as Green's students call him said he's grown to love caring for and getting kids to school each morning. A passion he said bloomed the day he bought his first school bus. 

"Everybody asks me when are you going to give it up? I mean I have children getting on my bus now that their grandparents drove my bus you know."

The school district employs 49 owner operators.

The position costs the district more than $63,000 per driver, including liability insurance. 

Green along with other owner operators are also pushing for a pay raise. They are hoping the board will approve a flat rate of $340 per route each day and guarantee 180 days of pay. All bus repairs, including gas come out of the drivers' gross pay.

READ MORE | School Board needs more time to vote on private bus drivers & athletic fields 

"Is affordability going to be there where we can buy new buses, new equipment and expand, because transportation is expensive. These buses are 100,000 plus now," said Green. "We own our equipment, we know it from bottom to top, front to rear and it's part of our commitment to maintain our buses, make sure they're in good operating condition daily."

Up to 50 more bus routes are also on the table. 

Owners like Green would have the option of buying more buses, and hiring more drivers. 

"If they advance that we would be interviewing and taking o more drivers and they would be screened for their abilities and naturally their attendance. are they going to be punctual? Are they going to at work everyday?"

Green said it's an investment he believes creates trust and unbreakable bonds that last for generations. 

"The parents have trust in who you are. They know who you are, and that's the big difference I guess like companies because there's such a high turnover in hiring and retaining bus drivers."

The school board will meet Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Central High School to discuss more details regarding their bus contract and routes for independent drivers.

School Patrol

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

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