TAMPA — Some school board members call it a scare tactic to threaten bus drivers. Others say now isn't the time to talk about it.
But board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell says it deserves a look anyway: whether to hand over operation of the Hillsborough County school district's bus system to a private contractor.
“There's nothing more to it than that,” Kurdell said. “If you're going to have a conversation about transportation, which has some real needs right now, you have to look at all aspects of how you do business in that department.”
Kurdell first mentioned the possibility at a board meeting April 1 and plans to continue the conversation at a transportation workshop next month. She said she wants to see a cost analysis. The district will spend $66 million of its nearly $3 billion budget on transportation this year. The department has 1,263 employees, according to its payroll records — most of them drivers.
“I don't support it,” board member April Griffin told a crowd of school bus drivers at an employee town hall meeting Monday. “We need to stay focused on what we need to do to fix transportation.”
Member Cindy Stuart said the board needs to first iron out other issues with transportation, such as replacing its aging bus fleet, before thinking about privatizing.
“I do not want the privatization conversation to hold up the transportation conversation,” Stuart said. “I'm not sure where this came from, but it's now out in the community.”
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The prospect has riveted the attention of the union representing bus drivers and other district staff. Leaders of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation are calling for as many as 300 drivers to attend the school board meeting at 3 p.m. April 29 to speak against the idea.
“This decision will affect the students we serve, our retirement, health insurance and benefits,” a flier distributed to transportation employees states.
Union President Iran Alicea didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
Like Hillsborough, most of Florida's 67 school districts include the bus system in their public operations.
Only two have privatized — Santa Rosa County, which serves 25,000-plus students in the Panhandle, and Duval County, with more than 125,000 students in the Jacksonville area. Both have been doing it this way for years and say it works for them.
Nationwide it's a different story. About one-third of all public school districts outsource transportation services, said Rick Klaus, vice president for business development at Durham School Services, which contracts to provide transportation to 490 school districts in 32 states.
Companies such as Durham say the benefits of privatizing include higher safety standards and lower costs. Hourly wages and benefits for drivers generally are less than a school district would pay. In Hillsborough, with more than 200,000 students, drivers start at just over $11 an hour. Top pay is $27,655 a year.
The state's major teachers union says there's less to privatization than meets the eye.
“It is often pushed as a cost-saving measure, but it rarely works out that way,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. “The company taking over a public service will look to cut costs, which means it will look to cut staff, salaries and benefits.”
That means a hit on the local economy, he said, as workers put in fewer hours, take home less money and wind up seeking government assistance.
Another concern, Pudlow said, is that a company contracting with a school district may be less responsive to management and parent concerns than are district employees.
“We've seen that often in the past,” he said.
Durham's Klaus warned that outsourcing is not always less expensive. Sometimes cash-strapped school districts are not able to spend as much on transportation as they should, he said.
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In Santa Rosa, the district began contracting with Laidlaw Education Services 17 years ago, said Joey Harrell, assistant superintendent for administrative services. The district was able to cut its transportation costs and now pays Durham $7.9 million per year.
“Our major objective was to relieve our administrators to some extent of the responsibility of noninstructional duties,” Harrell said. “We felt like the best way to do that is to hire a company that understands transportation. That's what they do.”
When the district made the switch, employees were given the choice to remain employed by the district or move to Durham, Harrell said. Now all new drivers automatically are added to Durham's payroll. A first-year driver there makes $11.25 an hour.
Today, Durham manages 55 district employees and 234 contract workers. On average, a district-employed driver makes $37,715 a year in wages and benefits, significantly more than the $20,822 contract drivers make. Harrell said the school board hears quarterly updates from the company, which adheres to state Department of Transportation and Department of Education requirements for its buses and employees.
“The district still has oversight over that contract and over the operations,” Harrell said. “Every quarter they present a report to our school board, talking about everything from accidents to how much we're paying for fuel. Our board is always informed as to how things are running in transportation. That's one of the things we like and have required.”
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Duval does things differently.
Since the 1950s, the district has outsourced its transportation services to more than 100 small companies at a time, operations chief Paul Soares said.
In 2001, the district revamped its bidding process and now spends a total of $45 million a year on contracts with four of the biggest school transportation companies in the country: Durham, First Students, Student Transportation and Birnie Bus Service.
An additional $5 million a year in fuel costs brings the total transportation budget to $50 million.
“We were able to afford the newest bus fleet in the state,” Soares said. “That's one advantage. If we were in-house, we would have to have $80 (million) to $90 million in capital to buy a fleet.”
Santa Rosa's Harrell said the transition to a privatized transportation department can be a tough one, but it has worked for his district.
“It's a relationship between the school district and the contractor,” he said. “There has to be a lot of work with each other to make it a successful partnership. I feel like we've gotten there, but it has taken work.”
In Hillsborough, bus driver Kelmie Bigelow sees the idea as “just another ploy” to target the district's transportation employees.
Complaints from some of them — about faulty equipment, poor leadership, a lack of training in handling students with special needs and low morale — touched off reviews that have put the Hillsborough department under the spotlight.
A consultant hired to help write a plan for buying new buses is conducting one review of the department. Separately, the Hillsborough district is holding focus groups for employees and investigating some of the complaints.
At least 75 transportation employees attended the latest town hall, on Monday, organized by board member Griffin.
“This has got to be the lowest-paying district in the state,” Bigelow said, “and we're the third-largest in the state.”
Board member Candy Olson, who helped facilitate the meeting, said others on the board have reservations about privatizing transportation, even if they are willing to consider the idea.
“I can't see anyone serve our kids the way you serve them,” she said. “Thank you for the work you do every day.”