Sullivan schools consider options on owning, contracting for bus service

Rick Wagner • Feb 3, 2014 at 10:13 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County school system leaders heard a lot about school bus contracts Monday, later voting on one bus contract issue but leaving another for a later meeting.

During the regular Board of Education meeting Monday night, the group voted 7-0 to ask Assistant Director of Schools Gene Johnson to approach existing bus contractors serving 12 contract routes up for renewal later this year, asking if they wanted to renew for another four years.

However, the board took no action on 40 routes that Holston Bus Co. has indicated it will cease serving at the end of the school year, waiting for school board attorney Pat Hull to be sure it would be legal for Holston’s 40 routes not up for renewal to be assumed by existing bus contractors.

That is allowed under the existing contracts and is in other systems’ contracts, but board member Randall Jones during a work session before the meeting questioned if that was legal, and Hull agreed to look into the matter.

Of 109 bus routes in the county, Johnson said contractors range from running two or three routes to Holston and another, C and S Transportation, running 40 each.

Johnson said Holston owner Kenny Morrell has put the system on notice it no longer wants its 40 contracts but would be willing to turn them over to other contractors with BOE approval. Holston for decades has served students in the Sullivan East and Central high school zones.

Options discussed during the work session included bidding the 40 out under a new request for proposals, including provisions that could lead to a national firm bidding on all 109 routes, and looking into the county system owning and operating its own fleet of school buses,

The county already operates 25 special education buses with one maintenance garage and one mechanic, but Johnson said that operation is funded through federal dollars.

Johnson said Morrell plans to continue serving Bristol, Tenn., schools under a bus contract. Elsewhere in the region, Kingsport owns and operates its own buses, serviced by the city’s fleet maintenance, and the Hawkins County schools system has its on buses, too.

About two years ago, Johnson said across the state 95 school districts owned their own buses, 16 used a combination of contract and owned buses and 11 were all contract.

Hull and Johnson said it would be difficult to say all the pros and cons of owning versus contracting without some detailed information and analysis, although Hull said obviously purchasing a fleet of buses would not be cheap. Johnson said they cost a little bit less than $100,000 each.

The county system pays around $40,000 per route each year, Hull said, but allowances are built in for periodic cost-of-living raises and for extra money when fuel prices increase as they did a few years ago.

On a related matter, the board voted 7-0 to support legislation making its way through the General Assembly in Nashville that would remove mileage and time limitations on buses as long as they passed inspections.

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