Private school bus plan is costly
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
Pinellas County school officials hoped a private company would save the district money as it moves toward a choice plan that calls for an expensive new transportation system.
But it won't.
A committee of transportation and finance officials is recommending that the School Board reject bids from four companies that wanted to provide about 100 of the 200 new routes that will be needed during choice.
The analysis came down to economics.
It costs Pinellas about $37,000 to operate a bus route each year; the lowest bidder, a large national company, planned to charge about $52,000.
"We had to start with the bottom line," said Jerry Runkle, the assistant superintendent for finance who was on the review committee. "We know now we can do it a lot more efficiently."
Parents will begin making choices for the 2003-2004 school year this fall, but there are many details they won't know about transportation. For instance, they won't know the location of their child's bus stop or how long the ride will be.
The fact that a private company would be too expensive also puts the burden on the school district to hire and train more than 200 drivers and make sure enough buses are ready to roll.
"I had hoped a private vendor would save us some money," said School Board member Max Gessner. "It was one idea, and it didn't pan out. There are some other things the district can explore."
That includes seeking federal grants, urging the state to better fund transportation, keeping some buses in service for extra years and researching lease-purchase agreements for others.
Last month, board members approved a new bus system for choice that could increase annual operating costs by about $7.5-million, but they hoped a private company could trim that estimate.
Why the increase? Parents will be able to pick a school across town, rather than being assigned to a neighborhood school. Anyone who selects a school more than 2 miles from home qualifies for bus service.
In some cases under the new system, students who attend neighboring schools would share one bus. One bus, for instance, would run through a neighborhood and pick up kids bound for two elementary schools; other buses would carry middle- or high-school students.
Some students will continue to get home-to-school service. Until choice applications are processed in December and January, transportation officials won't be able to say which schools will be paired or how much longer bus rides will be. They can only quote a study that showed which schools could be paired.
If the School Board follows the recommendation to reject the bids, the district will have to fill all of the estimated 200 new routes.
The soonest the board could vote is July 30.
How will the district hire and train more than 200 drivers in a year?
"Yes, it's going to be hard," transportation director Terry Palmer said. "We can do it. We're going to all have to work at it."
Next week, Palmer will meet with the district's human resources director to develop recruiting strategies, such as offering hiring bonuses to new drivers or referral bonuses to existing drivers.
Palmer said the school district should have enough buses without a private company. The district was planning to buy 54 new buses this year anyway. Instead of retiring older buses, some will be kept in service longer.
He also plans to meet with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and research some lease-purchase options.
School Board member Linda Lerner continues to think the district is overestimating how many students will ride buses during the first years of choice. She figures, and a survey bore this out, that many students will continue to choose neighborhood schools.
So she isn't worried that the private company didn't work out.
"It doesn't alarm me," Lerner said. "But I will be asking some of the questions about how we're going to do it, especially about recruiting drivers and retaining them."
School bus company bids
Durham School Services (based in Austin, Texas) -- $5.23-million.*
First Student Inc. (based in Cincinnati) -- $5.36-million.
Laidlaw Education Services (Naperville, Ill.) -- $5.73-million.
Student XPress of Pinellas County -- $6.1-million.
* Figures are for the first year of choice. The companies were bidding to provide 100 of the 200 new buses needed for the plan, as well as some bus drivers.
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