District dumping Reliable school bus contract
— 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 transportation contract with Reliable.