School board looks into bus transportation
Requests recommendations on changes, alternatives to contract system
On Tuesday at their regular meeting, members of the Charles County Board of Education requested staff to make recommendations on possible changes and alternatives to the school system’s current contract-based bus transportation system.
The decision comes amid ongoing complaints by school bus drivers and
others that the drivers are treated unfairly by being employees of one of 26 companies that contract with the school system to provide transportation services rather than school system employees.
The school board had requested a briefing on how the $21.7 million budgeted annually for contracted transportation services is spent.
Randy Sotomayor, executive director of finance and business for the school system, said that Charles County has the third highest cost per student rider in the state.
The school system contracts services with 26 different companies for the use of 341 buses (273 route buses, 68 spare buses), 273 bus drivers and 50 attendants, according to information presented to the school board.
Of the $21.7 million budgeted for contract bus services, 16 percent goes toward paying the “per vehicle allotment,” an annual amount paid for the use of each bus.
The total cumulative payments for the use of each bus over the 15-year lifespan come to $259,189, which is 2.83 times the cost of each bus, Sotomayor said.
Transportation Director Michael Heim said the per vehicle allotment covers not just the cost of the bus, but is intended to also pay the costs of the business.
“If they have a lot, or buildings, to pay the lease or the rent on that building. The utilities are going to be taken out of that PVA, and the administrative staff,” Heim said. “It goes beyond the contractor’s cost for the bus.”
School board member Mark Crawford asked if it would be cheaper for the school system to purchase buses outright.
“That could be an option, and it can possibly be cheaper,” Sotomayor responded.
A 2010 legislative audit of the school system cited the allotment as an “overpayment” and recommended the rate be tied to current market conditions, Sotomayor said.
Contract companies are also paid a maintenance allowance of 82.4 cents per mile per bus, which amounts to a total of approximately $567,515 per bus over 15 years. Sotomayor said contractor expenditures on preventative maintenance and repairs are an estimated $175,730 per bus over its 15-year life.
School board member Victoria Kelly said she was concerned about overpayment in maintenance.
“That seems like a very large difference. I’m concerned about how much we’re paying,” Kelly said. “We’re not being good stewards of the public’s money if that’s something we’re overpaying for.”
School board vice chairman Michael Lukas requested that staff return with a recommendation on whether to keep the current system, make changes or replace it, a request confirmed by the rest of the board.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make a determination of what is in the best fiscal interests of the school system,” Lukas said.
The 2010 audit recommended the school system perform a cost-benefit analysis of its system of contracting transportation services, noting that the last analysis was performed in 1995 and saying Charles County may be paying $8.3 million more than necessary over a 12year period “because of the generous reimbursement rates used,” according to the report.
During the public comment section of the meeting, school bus drivers and others requested the board replace the current contract system with a fleet management system in which bus drivers work directly for the school system.
Vanita Kelly, who described herself as a parent and Charles County taxpayer, was one of those who spoke.
“I ask the school board to make these bus drivers county employees,” Kelly said, citing the legislative audit. “I’m calling on the state of Maryland to investigate this apparent waste of funds and to see what is the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
Art Goff of Concerned Citizens of Charles County said that during a closed door meeting April 8 between Superintendent Kimberly Hill, school system officials, and bus driver representatives, an informal poll of bus drivers indicated that 50 out of 60 drivers did not receive the one-time $300 payment stipulated in the contract between the contract companies and the school system for drivers who have completed mandatory training and certification.
Hill said in a phone interview that the meeting was the first time school system officials had heard of it.
“We had not heard prior to that meeting of any issues of bus drivers not receiving that,” Hill said. “Mr. Heim has been given the names of the drivers and is currently investigating.”
According to information provided by the school system, pay for Charles County bus drivers is comparable to that received by St. Mary’s and Calvert county bus drivers, which also use a contract system. Charles County also pays benefits, including a portion of health and retirement, which the other counties do not.
However, in Prince George’s County, bus drivers work directly for the school system and can go on to make over 33 percent more than Charles County drivers, in addition to receiving benefits.
Bus driver Cathy Lancast- er said during Tuesday’s meeting that the current situation makes it difficult to determine who is responsible.
“When I go to my contractor, he tells me to go to the school board. When I go to the school board, they tell me to go to my contractor,” Lancaster said. “Who’s our boss? We need to know and we want to know.”
Hill said the issue is complicated.
“With contractors, we’re dealing with family-owned businesses who have provided our school system with great service over many decades. We’re also hearing from bus drivers about what they feel is unfair treatment,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, our top concern, from a school system point of view, is in seeing that our students are transported safely and efficiently to and from our schools.”
Bus driver supporters hold up signs during Tuesday’s school board meeting.