Dis­trict dump­ing Re­li­able school bus con­tract

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By DANIEL DIVILIO ddivilio@thekent­coun­tynews.com

— Kent County Pub­lic Schools is bring­ing back lo­cal con­trac­tors and pur­chas­ing more than a dozen of its own buses in an ef­fort to ad­dress stu­dent trans­porta­tion is­sues that have marred the start of the aca­demic year.

Mon­day night, the Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion au­tho­rized Su­per­in­ten­dent Karen Couch to ne­go­ti­ate the can­cel­la­tion of its stu­dent trans­porta­tion agree­ment with an out­side con­trac­tor and the pur­chase of dis­trict’s buses. The num­ber of buses the dis­trict needs to buy has not been fi­nal­ized as ne­go­ti­a­tions with pre­vi­ous lo­cal con­trac­tors con­tinue.

Ear­lier this year, the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion put the bus con­tract out to bid, hop­ing to save money on stu­dent trans­porta­tion. Low bid­der Re­li­able Trans­porta­tion of Bal­ti­more was awarded the con­tract, tak­ing over the bus routes at the be­gin­ning of the cur­rent school year.

The com­pany had a ter­ri­ble start, with wide­spread re­ports of buses be­ing late, fail­ing to pick up stu­dents and break­ing down. The sit­u­a­tion boiled over at a Sept. 11 Board of Ed­u­ca­tion meet­ing, dur­ing which par­ents and com­mu­nity mem­bers voiced com­plaints — at times shout­ing from the stand­ing room-only crowd — for nearly five hours.

“My daugh­ter has yet to get the bus to school. We have been up at the bus stop for ev­ery morn­ing last week and a bus never comes,” one mother told board mem­bers at their Sept. 11 meet­ing.

On Mon­day night, Couch said main­tain­ing the con­tract with Re­li­able was no longer fea­si­ble. She said the dis­trict and Re­li­able are work­ing on a smooth tran­si­tion to a new stu­dent trans­porta­tion pro­gram that will not in­clude the com­pany.

“This tran­si­tion will even­tu­ally re­sult in the use of a com­bined fleet, with a com­bi­na­tion of pri­vate bus con­trac­tors and bus routes op­er­ated by driv­ers who will be em­ployed di­rectly by the Kent County Pub­lic Schools,” Couch said.

Couch said the dis­trict al­ready has three pri­vate con­trac­tors fill­ing out routes for Re­li­able. She said the dis­trict will be­gin hir­ing its own driv­ers and pur­chas­ing its own buses.

“It is im­por­tant to note that even with the sched­uled tran­si­tion of routes to pri­vate con­trac­tors and the Kent County Pub­lic Schools, we still an­tic­i­pate that we will have a driver short­age,” Couch said.

A driver short­age has been part of the prob­lem with Re­li­able ful­fill­ing its con­tract.

Couch in­vited any­one with a com­mer­cial driver’s li­cense will­ing to get the nec­es­sary en­dorse­ment to op­er­ate a school bus to con­tact the cen­tral of­fice.

The fi­nal terms of the can­cel­la­tion of the Re­li­able con­tract are be­ing ne­go­ti­ated by third-party le­gal coun­sel, Couch said.

Couch also re­ceived ap­proval for sev­eral items re­lated to the dis­trict’s pur­chase of school buses. Board mem­bers agreed to waive the usual process for ap­prov­ing a new dis­trict pro­ce­dure. That process usu­ally takes a month or more to com­plete. They then ap­proved a new pro­ce­dure for emer­gency pro­cure­ment to speed up the process of pur­chas­ing buses.

“I would just say that I think this meets the cri­te­ria of an emer­gency,” said Tr­ish McGee, Board of Ed­u­ca­tion pres­i­dent.

There were con­sid­er­ably fewer par­ents in the au­di­ence at Mon­day’s meet­ing.

Par­ent Nathan Shroyer said he was happy to see the dis­trict mov­ing for­ward. He said the pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion at the pre­vi­ous meet­ing helped push the dis­trict to­ward a res­o­lu­tion. He hopes to see the pub­lic re­main en­gaged.

“I just want to thank you for fir­ing Re­li­able. They didn’t make the grade,” said par­ent Bar­bara Reed.

Par­ent Carl Hardin, who spoke at length at the Sept. 11 meet­ing, of­ten shout­ing, con­tin­ued to crit­i­cize board mem­bers Mon­day night, say­ing they did not work fast enough. He ques­tioned why the stu­dent trans­porta­tion con­tract would be awarded to a com­pany from Bal­ti­more to be­gin with.

“I live in a ru­ral area. When I go over the bridge, it’s a dif­fer­ent world. Peo­ple are dif­fer­ent over there. They live dif­fer­ent. They drive dif­fer­ent. It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent world,” Hardin said. “To give a con­tract to Bal­ti­more, to me, was the most ridicu­lous thing I ever heard.”

Re­becca Heriz-Smith, par­ent and or­ga­nizer of Sup­port Our Schools, a grass­roots cam­paign ad­vo­cat­ing for lo­cal schools, voiced con­cerns over con­tin­ued re­ports of an­gry par­ents ac­cost­ing bus driv­ers. She read a Face­book re­port an­other par­ent posted ear­lier in the day about such an in­ci­dent.

“I watched a par­ent throw rocks at the bus, throw (what looked like) a chain, beat the bus, cuss and ac­cuse the driver of steal­ing her daugh­ters [ sic] book­bag,” the post states.

Video of the al­leged in­ci­dent is be­ing shared on so­cial me­dia. The Kent County Sher­iff’s Of­fice is­sued a news re­lease stat­ing that it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

Wil­liam Pick­rum, pres­i­dent of the Kent County Com­mis­sion­ers, weighed in at his board’s meet­ing Tues­day night on re­ports of bus driv­ers be­ing ha­rassed. He ref­er­enced the racial vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville, Va. last month at a rally of white su­prem­a­cists, white na­tion­al­ists, KKK mem­bers and neo-Nazis.

“I find that very of­fen­sive that we have cit­i­zens and res­i­dents of this county to say un­civil things to bus driv­ers who are try­ing to do their job whether you think it’s great or not great. As with what hap­pened in Char­lottesville, racism is not dead. And cer­tainly it’s not dead here in this county and there’s no place for it here at all. And I be­lieve it’s em­bar­rass­ing for this county, for our cit­i­zens to act like that, to as­sault and in­sult bus driv­ers and staff. It doesn’t mat­ter if they come from — if they live in Bal­ti­more or St. Louis or outer Mon­go­lia, they are hu­man be­ings and we have to treat one an­other like hu­man be­ings,” Pick­rum said to ap­plause.

At Mon­day night’s Board of Ed­u­ca­tion meet­ing, Couch and Joe Wheeler, dis­trict op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor, con­tin­ued to de­tail plans for pur­chas­ing 12 stan­dard school buses and two spe­cial needs buses — all fully equipped with state- and lo­cally-re­quired safety fea­tures.

The dis­trict is pig­gy­back­ing off a Wash­ing­ton County con­tract for the ma­jor­ity of the new buses, a com­mon pro­cure­ment pro­ce­dure by which a gov­ern­ment agency signs onto a con­tract pre­vi­ously put out to bid and awarded by an­other ju­ris­dic­tion.

Wheeler said the stan­dard buses could be re­ceived by Kent County Pub­lic Schools as early as next week. He said the spe­cial needs buses will have to be or­dered, with de­liv­ery in six to eight weeks.

Couch said the dis­trict is con­sid­er­ing a lease-pur­chase agree­ment for the buses.

“This lease-pur­chas­ing fi- nanc­ing is a re­ally good op­tion be­cause the bor­rowed money rate is so cheap now,” said Jane Tow­ers, dis­trict su­per­vi­sor of fi­nan­cial op­er­a­tions.

Tow­ers said the lease will be for 10 years at 2.15 per­cent in­ter­est, this time piggy-back­ing off an agree­ment al­ready inked by Caro­line County.

Couch said if the buses run $1.5 mil­lion, the an­nual cost to the dis­trict will be $168,000, which is within the stu­dent trans­porta­tion bud­get. She said there is no penalty for pre­pay­ment.

Tow­ers said the av­er­age life of a school bus is 15 years. Un­der the leasepur­chase plan, the dis­trict will own the buses af­ter 10 years if it does not speed that up by pre­pay­ment.

“We were for­tu­nate enough to be able to find the buses that we need,” Couch said, not­ing that the dis­trict is look­ing for ways to fill the void on spe­cial needs buses, pos­si­bly bor­row­ing them from an­other county.

Couch also will be seek­ing board ap­proval to pur­chase three spare buses, two stan­dard and one spe­cial needs.

The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion au­tho­rized Couch to en­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions to pur­chase buses with a $1.5 mil­lion cap and to ne­go­ti­ate the lease agree­ment.

Couch ex­pected to have all the de­tails worked out in time for a spe­cial meet­ing Wed­nes­day evening at which the board planned to vote on the fi­nal pur­chase price and lease terms

The dis­trict still needs to find some­where to keep its buses. Due to zon­ing is­sues in Kent County, Re­li­able es­tab­lished its lo­cal bus de­pot at the for­mer Queen Anne’s Bowl­ing Cen­ter lo­cated near Chestertown but in Queen Anne’s County.

Couch plans to seek a zon­ing amend­ment for the dis­trict’s buses, a process that likely will take sev­eral months.

Ap­pear­ing be­fore the Kent County Com­mis­sion­ers Tues­day night, Couch, joined by Tow­ers and board mem­ber Joe Goetz, pre­sented again the dis­trict’s plan for stu­dent trans­porta­tion. Also at­tend­ing, but re­main­ing in the au­di­ence were McGee and Bryan Wil­liams, Board of Ed­u­ca­tion vice pres­i­dent.

“For what­ever it’s worth, I know it’s been dif­fi­cult times. But I think — what lit­tle I know — I think you’re on the right track. I think it’s a good move to get that taken care of. Ku­dos to you,” Com­mis­sioner Ron Fithian told Couch.

The dis­trict re­ceived per­mis­sion from the com­mis­sion­ers to park some buses at the Kent County Pub­lic Works fa­cil­ity on Morgnec Road just out­side Chestertown. The buses also will be al­lowed to re­fuel through the county’s bulk pur­chas­ing pro­gram.

“We’ll pay our way,” Couch said re­gard­ing the fuel costs.

Couch is look­ing at us­ing a se­cure site at Kent County High School in Wor­ton for ad­di­tional bus park­ing.

The com­mis­sion­ers also au­tho­rized the dis­trict to trans­fer $175,000 from its fund bal­ance to the stu­dent trans­porta­tion line in its bud­get for the bus pur­chase.


Buses serv­ing Kent County Pub­lic Schools are lined up Tues­day morn­ing at Re­li­able Trans­porta­tion’s bus de­pot lo­cated at the for­mer Queen Anne’s Bowl­ing Cen­ter on state Route 213. The dis­trict is ne­go­ti­at­ing the can­cel­la­tion of its stu­dent...

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