Richmond County schools district may consider privatizing bus system

When another school year began with late buses, disgruntled drivers and a flood of complaints to the Richmond County school system’s Transportation Department, the situation got school board member Jack Padgett Jr. thinking.

If the district can’t guarantee that buses run on time or keep dependable drivers, maybe someone else can do it better.

Padgett said privatizing a school district’s transportation department becomes an option when the system wants to save money or become more efficient, and it’s something he said could be an improvement for Richmond County.

“I don’t know if it’s a condemnation on us as a system or what, but we put a tremendous amount of effort into this transportation system in the last several years, and nothing we do seems to be working,” Padgett said. “The private sector, when it works right, demands a lot more efficiency. That, to me, says that maybe we need to look at privatization and go from there.”

At least two private transportation companies have approached the district about running its bus system. It’s a move school officials say has not yet been looked into, but one several board members are now pursuing.

Board member Jimmy Atkins has asked for a discussion about privatization to be added to the student services agenda for the board’s Sept. 13 committee meetings. He hopes an item for voting will then be added to the Sept. 20 board meeting so members can authorize the administration to start interviewing companies.

“If there is a way for us to save money and these (companies) come in and say they can do a better job at running the transportation part, me personally, I would be in favor of that,” Atkins said.

Only two Georgia school districts, Dalton and Savannah-Chatham County, outsource their bus systems to a private company, according to the state Department of Education. Both use First Student, which e-mailed Richmond County school board members Aug. 12 offering its services. Another company, Student Transportation of America, contacted Padgett on Aug. 17 and offered a free feasibility study to find out how much outsourced busing would cost Richmond County.

“I know everyone is going to think this is a reactive response, but if only two systems in the state are currently doing this, maybe we could for once be one of those trendsetters,” Atkins said.

Richmond County schools currently budgets $9.8 million for its transportation department, which drives 22,000 students on 432 routes using 140 to 148 buses daily.

In comparison, Savannah-Chatham County pays First Student $13.1 million a year to transport 20,000 students on 315 routes with 315 buses.

The Savannah school district first privatized its bus system in 1998 with Laidlaw Trans­port and switched to First Student in 2006 after Laidlaw could not maintain drivers or run timely routes, according to Otis Brock, the district’s chief operations officer.

Brock said that with the right leadership in place, First Student has saved the district money and increased efficiency. A recent evaluation showed it would cost the district a little more than $14 million to run its own buses.

“A huge benefit to have …your school system be run by an outside entity and an independent entity – it takes a little bit of a burden off the school system to do that function so the school system can focus more on education,” Brock said.

In the first 18 months of the First Student contract, Brock said, there were some growing pains in which buses ran late and students weren’t picked up. But overall, the partnership has been an improvement, he said.

Maureen Richmond, the director of media relations for First Student, said the company can purchase a school system’s bus fleet and offer jobs to current transportation employees.

In Savannah, drivers start at $12 an hour with First Student, Brock said.

During the Richmond County school board’s forum Tuesday, acting Superintendent James Whit­son said one concern about privatization would be selling the system’s buses and not having the capital to buy them back if needed.

Selling buses to a private company is an option, not a requirement, according to Pete Pearson, an executive vice president with Student Transportation of America.

At the beginning of a partnership with a school district, Student Transportation evaluates the district and designs a contract to fit the system’s requirements. On average, about 80 percent of a district’s drivers end up transferring to the company, which helps its goal of remaining local, Pearson said.

Both companies that have courted Richmond County say being a part of the community is a part of their operation. Dalton’s First Student buses shuttled soldiers to Atlanta as they were departing for Iraq, and the company holds family events for its drivers in Savannah.

The Dalton school district has contracted with First Student since 2001 but has had a privatized bus system since its beginning. The district, which has 7,218 students and 37 buses, pays First Stu­dent $3 million a year, according to Transportion Director BeLinda Parrish.

The contract includes all salaries, benefits, maintenance and operations and is paid for monthly by the school system.

“Some systems look down on (privatization), but you know what? These are the same drivers I’ve been seeing for 10 years now,” Parrish said. “They provide so much for us, not just safety-wise for the drivers, but also for our students. They’re just very active for our community.”

Privatization is not always a good fit. Atlanta Public Schools used to contract with Laidlaw but switched to running the department in-house in 2000.

Keith Bromery, the school system’s director of media relations, said it’s difficult for a large district to depend on a private company for a service that not many other sources provide. Atlanta has almost 50,000 students.

If the school system becomes dissatisfied with the service but has already sold all of its buses, it ends up with few options.

“When you do it yourself, you have more control over the cost,” Bromery said. “When you outsource it, you run the risk that the cost may start off low, but it can fluctuate. It can go up … and what are you going to say? ‘We’ll find someone else?’ ”

Some regions of the country outsource school buses more than others. Virtually all of New England, Wisconsin and Ohio’s school transportation is privatized, while states such as Virginia and Georgia are mostly independent. South Carolina is unique because it’s the only state that owns and maintains its entire bus fleet for all public schools.

There is no particular reason for choosing to outsource school bus services, said David Hobson, the executive director of the Nation­al School Transportation Asso­ciation.

“A lot of times, it’s driven by service and bus issues,” Hobson said. “But sometimes it’s the politics of the school board and politics of the local government.”

Richmond County board members say the idea of privatization is still just an idea. But with the unhappy drivers and an overwhelmed staff, it might become more of a reality, Padgett said.

“I do know – and it’s a sad fact – that politics has a big hand in the (transportation) department’s problems,” he said. “This would be one way of taking that out.”

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