It will be at least one more year, if at all, before the Richmond County school system privatizes its bus transportation services.
The school board voted 6-3 Friday, the first day of its two-day retreat, to authorize the administration to issue a request for proposals for outsourced busing. Board members Marion Barnes, Venus Cain and Patsy Scott were opposed, and Barbara Pulliam was absent.
Any proposals companies submit would have to have start dates of Aug. 1, 2013, meaning the school system would continue to run its own transportation department at least through the 2012-13 school year.
There was spirited discussion among the board members about whether it’s even worth privatizing bus services. But all acknowledged there are some changes the district can make to its system now, and that waiting a year to see whether those changes would work was the prudent way to proceed.
The idea first surfaced shortly after the transportation department went through a rocky start to the school year in August. During the first few weeks, school officials, transportation workers and board members fielded hundreds of complaints about late-arriving – or no-show – buses and confusion over where children should be picked up or dropped off.
Board members said Friday that they have only fielded a few complaints since then. But they also said they do not want to face yet another rough start to the 2012-13 school year.
The most persistent problem is high rates of call-outs and absenteeism among drivers. A private company, board member Frank Dolan said, would be in a better position to punish – even terminate – those drivers than the school system.
“We have 20 percent (of drivers’) tardies and unexcused absences – the problem charts off the page – and nobody was sick those days on that pattern,” Dolan said, citing bus driver attendance data from the transportation department. “In private business, if that behavior continued, those workers would be terminated.”
The downside of a private company, board member Marion Barnes said, is that its priority is not serving students and parents, but maximizing profits. He said that if privatizing school buses was such a good idea, more than just two Georgia school districts would have done so.
Barnes said he has talked with the Savannah-Chatham school system’s administration, which has a privatized bus system, and he was told that “their budget increased by $6 million.”
“Any people down there will tell you they’ve got same headaches now they had when they were running their own transportation,” he said. “They say it would be a lot easier if they were doing it themselves, but they are under this contract.”
Acting Superintendent James Whitson said he will recommend as part of the fiscal 2012-13 budget that the transportation employee in charge of mapping and routes, who currently works 11 months, be made into a 12-month employee. That employee is off for a month during summer, which is a critical time for planning bus routes as the district gears up for a new school year.
Barnes and other board members also suggested that Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley be given an assistant director. Barnes pointed out that when Wiley was promoted from assistant director to director, the assistant’s position was never filled, meaning he effectively has to do both jobs.
But board member Jack Padgett Jr. cautioned his colleagues, noting that both of these moves cost money – something the district is seeing less of with continued state funding cuts.