Peach BOE considers privatized busing

FORT VALLEY — The Peach County Board of Education is considering outsourcing its transportation services to a private company.

The matter was discussed at the board’s January and February study sessions, and they will revisit the matter at a study session March 30. The board may take a final vote on the matter at its April meeting, said C.B. Mathis, assistant superintendent of operations.

School officials are looking at working with an outside company because of numerous complaint calls to the central office from parents about the buses. Some board members also received calls.

“We’ll look at it and do what’s best for the county,” said Mathis. “If they can save the county (money), we’re willing to look at it.”

Durham School Services was chosen from among four companies that presented proposals to board officials, Mathis said. If the board does decide to work with Durham, Peach County would retain ownership of its buses and provide the fuel needed to run them.

Mathis said current bus drivers and monitors working in the system, 46 in all, will have the opportunity to work for Durham with the same four-hour days they are working now.

“Some have worked with us 20 years, some two months. We’re not going to kick them to a curb. If they are willing to do what the company asks, they will have a job,” he said.

Durham estimated it could save Peach County at least $100,000 from its current transportation cost of about $1.8 million.

Most of that savings would come from being able to run more efficiently, as well as being able to purchase buses at a lower rate, said Greg Walter, Southeast region vice president of customer care and director of business development for Durham.

The projection does not take into account a court order on Peach County has shaped the way the schools have drawn their zones and bus routes, as well as extra duties such as band and field trips, Mathis said.

At the February study session, school officials said they would do more research on the impact of the plan, recalculate their own financial projections and consult with other school systems that are already working with Durham.

“We need to make apples-to-apples work,” Mathis said. “We want to make sure we’re in control with the situation, to go over the data and read the information.”

Working with Durham

Durham School Services operates in 350 school systems in 29 states. If Peach County were to privatize its transportation services, it would be the first system in Georgia to do so with the company, Walter said.

Among systems that already work with Durham are Charleston County schools in South Carolina and Duval County schools in Florida. There are four Georgia school systems that are considering contracts with the company, Walter said, including Peach.

According to a presentation Walter gave the school board in January, Durham will offer a pay increase to $17 per hour to current employees for a 144-day year, unemployment supplements during summers and other breaks, Aetna insurance and a 401K plan.

Bus driver morale, safety and training are high priorities for the company, Walter said.

“For us, drivers are at the top of the totem pole. The only thing we do is student transportation ... we treat our employees like they’re the most important thing in the business, because they are,” he said.

Also, Walter said Durham would work with locally operated Blue Bird, as well as other school bus manufacturers, to purchase some of its 1,500 to 2,000 buses a year companywide.

Reaction from Peach bus drivers

Meanwhile, some bus drivers currently employed with the school system are worried they will be negatively affected if Peach County decides to use Durham’s services.

Bus drivers were already hit with a 5 percent state pay cut to their annual salary this year.

Sara Wilder, a Peach County bus driver for 25 years, attended the February board meeting and encouraged the board not to seek the company’s services.

Wilder said she was earning slightly more than $12,000 before the cuts. According to her calculations, she will earn less with Durham. She is also worried that she will lose state benefits.

“It’s nothing, but our little nothing,” she said.

“I love the people, I love the job. I want it to work out right. It would hurt all the drivers, not just me.”

Mark Watkins, a school bus driver for 11 years, the last eight in Peach County, has also taken an active interest in the matter.

“We feel that if a new company comes in, any money they save will be on the backs of employees,” he said.

Watkins, who is also the pastor of Christian Hope Church in Warner Robins, depends on his job as a bus driver to provide insurance for himself, his wife and his son.

“I don’t think having a private company to transport children is the answer to their problems,” he said.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.