School board looks into bus trans­porta­tion

Re­quests rec­om­men­da­tions on changes, al­ter­na­tives to con­tract sys­tem

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU jan­fen­son-comeau@somd­news.com

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.”

STAFF PHOTO BY JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU

Bus driver sup­port­ers hold up signs dur­ing Tues­day’s school board meet­ing.

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