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    Four bid to offer choice busing

    The companies are vying to ferry students after school choice begins next year.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 14, 2002

    LARGO -- One company buses students to schools in Milwaukee and St. Louis. Another brings kids to the school door in South Carolina. A third provides school buses in parts of Los Angeles.

    Now those three companies are among four groups that submitted bids Thursday to carry thousands of Pinellas students to and from school when choice starts in 2003.

    The bids for providing half of the additional 200 school buses and drivers needed for choice range from $5.2-million to $6.1-million for the first year. Those bids may appear high, compared to the district's prediction that annual transportation operating costs will rise by a total of $7.5-million with choice. But the bids include the cost of providing 100 new buses as well as operating them and providing drivers.

    Among the issues district officials will review as they analyze the bids: What kind of driver training does the company offer? How are criminal backgrounds and driving records checked? What technology can the company provide so the district can track buses? What is the company's approach to maintaining buses?

    "Numbers are only the starting point," said Pinellas transportation director Terry Palmer, whose department operates 533 routes. The companies, whose costs will escalate each year, are:

    Durham School Services, based in Austin, Texas, which would charge $5.23-million the first year. Durham drives 350,000 students each day in 250 school districts. Its clients include schools in Milwaukee and St. Louis.

    First Student Inc., based in Cincinnati, which would charge $5.36-million the first year. First Student has a fleet of 15,000 school buses and transports more than 1-million students daily. Its clients include Charleston County School District in South Carolina.

    Laidlaw Education Services, based in Naperville, Ill., which would charge $5.73-million the first year. Laidlaw has a fleet of more than 40,000 buses and transports more than 2.3-million students every day. Its clients include schools in Los Angeles.

    Student XPress of Pinellas County, a joint venture of several out-of-town companies, would charge $6.1-million the first year. Officials expected to pay a private company about $24-million over four years. Durham and First Student would cost less; Laidlaw would cost about $100,000 more; and Student XPress would cost about $1.5-million more.

    The district hopes a company will save taxpayers money. Palmer sees other potential benefits. The company would provide new buses, and the district wouldn't have to hire or train drivers.

    The district also plans to hire a recruiting firm to beef up its work force because the district is having trouble recruiting enough drivers.

    A committee will begin reviewing the bids from the private companies next week. The committee will make a recommendation to the School Board by July 29. The committee could favor one company or recommend that the district continue bus operations.

    The board is scheduled to vote Aug. 20.

    - Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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