New Kent schools reject proposal to outsource transportation department

NEW KENT – The New Kent County Public Schools transportation department will not be outsourced this year.

The New Kent County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday, Feb. 18, not to move forward with outsourcing its buses and/or cars, as recommended by a Student Transportation of America (STA) feasibility study.

“I just don’t think the cost benefit is as great as presented here because there are so many large unknowns,” said District 4 School Board member Sarah Grier Barber. “[STA] is also in the business of providing a service, so they’re not really an objective party to conduct a feasibility study.”

According to Jason Moyer, Director of STA, the feasibility study found that New Kent Schools could save anywhere from $100,000 – $225,000 by outsourcing.

In one scenario, STA would purchase the existing New Kent Schools’ fleet, including buses and cars, for $1.7 million and add 33 new propane buses, all of which would be maintained by the company. In another, STA would lease the bus fleet for $1.5 million, add 33 propane buses, and allow New Kent Schools to maintain ownership of the fleet, though the company would perform maintenance on the vehicles for $350,000 per year.

In both cases, the schools would purchase the fuel.

Although Moyer admitted that propane buses would get about half the miles per gallon (mpg) as the diesel buses, he told the School Board that they would save money on propane prices.

“You could have savings of up to $90,000 by using alternative fuel,” Moyer said.

However, when asked by the Board about propane prices, New Kent Schools Transportation Director Stephen King said that the propane prices in Virginia are very unstable because of the demand, especially during the wintertime.

“If you look, the school systems are responsible, in that proposal, for buying the fuel. So, that doesn’t affect [STA] at all,” King said.

King added that mechanics must be certified to work with propane vehicles, and that the vehicle fleet is worth much more than $1.7 million, including radios and communication technology.

District 2 School Board member Dean Simmons expressed his concern about the schools entering into a contract with STA. If the schools ever decided to stop the contract, they would have to buy back the fleet at Kelley Blue Book Value, which he estimated at $4.4 million.

Several School Board members spoke about their discomfort with allowing STA, essentially a third party, to handle discipline problems on the buses.

“Right now we have a procedure that works well,” said School Board Chairman Leigh Quick.

“It runs smoothly at this point in time,” echoed District 1 School Board member Brett Marshall. “No matter what you do, the chain of command is going to be broken.”

According to School Superintendent Dr. Robert “Rick” Richardson, Jr., an independent study done over three years ago reported that New Kent Schools’ bus routes were 98.5 percent efficient.

School Board members were also disturbed that STA considers staff at full-time with 40 hours per week, and that the company was still unsure how the bus and car drivers’ medical insurance would be impacted by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The study reported that all current drivers and monitors would be grandfathered in their existing wage rates, but could offer no more details on the matter.

New Kent school bus drivers voiced their concern about losing their jobs to outsourcing and/or a loss of health benefits earlier this month. 

Although the two issues are unrelated, school bus drivers rallied together on Feb. 3 to plead with the School Board to reconsider taking any action this budget season that might force them to leave their positions.

It is still unknown how the ACA could affect the drivers’ medical insurance.

Currently, there are no school divisions in Virginia that outsource their transportation departments.

According to the Roanoke Times, although Roanoke County recently accepted transportation outsource bids, the county’s School Board announced on Tuesday that it was taking the idea off the table.

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.