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Drivers challenge bus costs

January 08, 2001

Drivers challenge bus costs



By TARA REILLY / Staff Writer


The Washington County School Bus Contractor's Association claims the Board of Education committed a conflict of interest when the board drafted its own report that states the school system would save thousands of dollars if it bought its own buses, rather than use the services of contractors.

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The Association also thinks an independent accounting firm would be better suited than the Board of Education to draw up an accurate and complete analysis.

The board's report states it can save about $34,000 by buying its own buses. Contractors say the board wouldn't see any savings.

"...This is a prime example of where the board staff did the comparison for the Board of Education, and in our opinion, this is a direct conflict of interest," said contractor Todd Hoffman in a statement to the School Board. "...The contractors feel we have been misrepresented by the board staff, and the only way to reach a fair conclusion is to have an independent, unbiased, accounting firm with no conflict of interest do a true and equitable cost comparison between county and contract bus transportation services."

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Hoffman then referred to an article from "School Bus Fleet," a national school transportation magazine, which suggests an outside consulting firm would best conduct an evaluation of a particular transportation department.

The Board believes it looked carefully at all numbers and has compiled a fair analysis, officials say.

Currently, the Board of Education owns 114 buses and uses 63 contracted buses. Board administrators claim the school system can buy a bus for about $67,000 over a 12-year-period. It now pays its 63 contractors about $108,000 over 12 years in per-vehicle allotments.

Contractors receive that allotment to pay for their buses. They then enter into an agreement with the school system to transport students. By law, buses can only be used to carry students for 12 years.

The School Board is mulling whether to renew the services of four contract bus drivers that expired. A decision could be made in two weeks.

Contractors have said the Board of Education left out several costs in its report, making their services appear more expensive, including fuel-tank maintenance expenses, maintenance to the garage facilities and electric bills.

School buses must be "plugged in" to a heating source during cold-weather months while they're not in use to ensure the bus will start properly. Hoffman, using rates he obtained from Allegheny Electric, said plugging in the county-owned buses would cost more than $28,000 in electric bills - a cost that was left off the board's analysis.

The Board of Education insists it included all expenses, including maintenance costs, in its report and that its numbers are accurate.

"We tried to include every cost that we had within our transportation department," said Chris Carter, the board's director of transportation. Carter made the comments at a recent School Board work session.

When asked by School Board Vice President Bernadette Wagner for the exact cost to "plug in" in the buses, Carter said he didn't have the figures with him.

"It would be a pretty significant cost to have these buses plugged in for more than 12 hours a day," Wagner said.

Contractors also said that if the School Board chooses to buy its own buses, it will be faced with hiring more school bus drivers. That's a difficult task, since there's a national shortage of bus drivers, Hoffman said.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett recently said he hoped the contractors would be willing to become board employees if a buyout happened.

Hoffman said the contractors would not go to work for the school system.

"Does Dr. Bartlett truly believe that the contractors, after being pushed out of business in this fashion, are going to remain to work for the board of Education?" Hoffman asked.

He said the board is having a hard enough time finding substitute drivers to fill in for full-time drivers, and that it sometimes has to use mechanics from its bus garage to drive.

Carter acknowledged that the board uses garage workers occasionally as substitute drivers, but said it's not a daily occurrence. He also said contractors have asked to use garage workers to fill in in the past.

Hoffman said he would like the School Board to carefully look over the issue and not rush its decision.

"Why is this being done in such a hurried fashion, shouldn't we be slow and careful to make such a business-changing decision...?"

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