By Christopher Smith
CHATSWORTH — Going through proposals to possibly privatize the Murray County Schools bus line will take until at least May before any decisions are made, said one school official.
Danny Dunn, human resources director, said school administrators decided to move their deadline from April 15 to May 13 so school officials could “carefully review” bids from three private companies — First Students, Durham School Services and Student Transportation of America — to outsource some of the system’s transportation services.
“The purpose behind requesting these bids goes back to the increasing benefits and health care costs that the school system has to pay (mandated by the state Department of Education),” Dunn said. “This year it went up about $150 for each bus driver. It will go up $150 next year and the year after that it will go up again. We have 300-400 classified (non-teaching) employees. That’s a significant increase (total benefit costs were about $800,000 for 2013). So we’re looking at where we can save with a private company.”
Several school bus drivers said they’re concerned about their job security, but wouldn’t go on the record because they are afraid of a backlash for talking openly with the media.
According to the Request for Proposals (RFP), drivers already working for the school system would be guaranteed one year of employment with the private company, and drivers who have worked in the school system for 10 years or more would be kept on the school system payroll and continue to get state benefits as long as they are in good standing.
What happens to those bus drivers at the end of their first year working with the private company?
“The decision making goes to the (private company),” Dunn said. “If the contractor thinks they can get by with 60 drivers and we have 63 drivers ... there could be cuts. We usually have normal attrition ... drivers who leave on their own. So that might not ever be a problem anyways.”
If a private company is selected, it won’t be for “the whole shebang,” Dunn added.
“The overview of the RFP provides for employee management and training for the drivers already in our school system,” Dunn said. “This does not include keeping the state benefits that bus drivers and bus monitors are eligible for (unless they’ve worked in the system for 10 years) ... we’re also not interested in turning over our fleet or management of our fleet. We’re interested in avoiding those heavy benefit increases that we can’t control.”
Dunn was quick to “emphasize” no decision has been made and the committee that will review each proposal before submitting a recommendation to school board members “hasn’t even been formed.”
“The review committee — once formed — will probably consist of me, Steve Loughridge (school finance director), Vickie Reed (superintendent) and the transportation directors (Johnny Ward and Terry Crump),” Dunn said. “If we find the financial savings are not to be found then we won’t even bring the proposal(s) before the school board ... we will carefully review this and balance the needs of our current drivers, monitors and the system as a whole. Then decide if we want to make a recommendation.”
If the committee makes a recommendation it will likely be voted on at the May 13 school board meeting. School board meetings are held at the central office at 1006 Green Road and typically begin at 6 p.m.
Several school board members said they couldn’t speak about the situation with authority until the review committee has made a recommendation.
“I just need to see what the money situation is,” school board member Frank Adams said. “I’ll approve their recommendation to privatize if there’s significant savings ... the proposal would have to come in under what we’re paying now or there’s no point in it ... It would appear to me that they (a private company) would want to use the current drivers (beyond their guaranteed year) based on their familiarity and because they’re already in place — they know the routes.”
Dunn said the discussion between school bus drivers and administrators “has been cordial.”
“The superintendent has invited drivers to discuss questions and concerns,” he said. “We’ve met with four drivers and a monitor. They can call and set up a time to talk with us. This is not going to be a situation where our bus drivers have a job one day and don’t have a job the next.”
Whitfield County Schools officials were also looking to save money by privatizing their bus line, but stopped short of publishing an RFP in October after several bus drivers complained. Dalton Public Schools privatized its bus system several years ago and uses First Student.