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Durham Bus Services Busted
8/26/2015 4:15:09 PM

By Beverly Gadson-Birch

The Charleston County School Board found itself on the offensive side Monday night as it fielded complaints from parents against Durham Bus Services. Several parents addressed the Board regarding bus schedules and routes.

Michael Bobby, the District Finance & Operations Officer, explained that Durham owned approximately half of the buses that transport Charleston County School students and the rest are state owned. He said the problem is not with the Durham owned buses but with the state owned buses that are extremely old and require continuous maintenance. He also cited not having enough drivers to start the year off. Bobby said the district lost some of its drivers to surrounding districts.

Discussions ensued around the maintenance of the state owned buses. Board member Collins said Durham needs to hire more mechanics to maintain the buses. Michael Bobby said the state maintains its fleet of buses and Durham cannot work on the state owned buses. Rev. Collins countered that the state needs to hire more mechanics to maintain its aging fleet. Some of the state’s buses have more than 600,000 miles.

In 2013, Charleston County School District bus drivers threatened to strike over pay and benefits. The district found itself over a barrel with the threat of a strike. The threat of an impending strike signaled delays in getting students to schools and a humongous headache for the district. The majority of the district’s bus drivers are unionized. The strike was averted with Durham promising to raise the drivers’ pay and a five year contract.

Fast forwarding two years later from 2013, Charleston County School District after months of back and forth with disgruntled parents, drivers, and union reps on one side and Durham Bus Services on the other voted to approve a five year $67 million contract to Durham Bus Services. One by one drivers and parents addressed the Board, meeting after meeting, about late buses and conditions on the buses, i.e., roaches and rats, filthy interior, torn bus seats, broken windows, breakdowns and safety issues. The Board turned a deaf ear and took an unprecedented action by bringing the matter up for a vote prior to the visitor’s comments section. Rev. Collins was the sole Board member voting against renewing Durham’s contract.

Todd Garrett, Chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, said the committee supported the renewal of Durham’s contract because it offered the most savings to the district. Cheapest is almost always not the best route to take particularly when it comes to children. I wonder if Board member Garrett, or any of the other Board members, would buy a cheap car seat for their newborn. Garrett said new buses were forthcoming from the state. He also said Durham would set aside some reserve buses to replace buses that are down. It would be interesting to know where the new buses are going that are coming into the district from the state. Hummmm! If your child is riding on an old unsafe bus, find out where the new buses are going.

The students are barely into the second week of school and Durham just months into a new five year multi-million dollar contract and once again Durham Bus Service finds itself back in the spotlight. Some might say “what goes around comes around”. I might call it karma. The Board had more than enough complaints to justify a new provider but refused to listen to community concerns when it called for the nonrenewal of Durham Bus Services contract.

The outsourcing of bus transportation saves school districts time, money and valuable resources so they can concentrate on the priority of educating students. However, in the case of Durham Bus Services, the District is constantly addressing Durham’s transportation problems which utilize staff time. So, where are the savings?

Durham needs to improve their delivery of service to parents, students and the district. If Durham’s start is any indication of their performance throughout the contract the district can expect even bigger trouble than last year.

According to Durham Bus Services website, they serve 475 school districts, has 23,000 plus employees in 32 states, transports over a million students and has18,000 plus vehicles. Yet, with all of the resources at hand, Durham Bus Services can’t seem to manage transportation effectively for the district.

As old folks would say, ”you get what you pay for”, “maybe they are just too big for their own good” or “too big for their britches”. Just like cheaper is not always the best, bigger is not always better. Board members, are y’all listening?

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