Charleston County school bus contract could include new buses

The Charleston County School Board is expected to vote on a new contract for school bus services next month.

A new contract for school bus services in Charleston County may include options for providing new buses to help buoy the school district’s aging state-owned fleet.

Michael Bobby, acting superintendent for the Charleston County School District, said Tuesday that the district is looking for a new school bus contract that will give the district options for adding newer buses to its fleet.

“We’re looking for a brand-new contract with new conditions designed to give us different ways for how to provide transportation services,” Bobby said.

Bobby said he hopes a new contract would “leave options” for financing new buses, which can run between $90,000 and $100,000 per vehicle.

“The state doesn’t have a ready-made solution for us (to replace aging buses), so we’re trying to find a solution locally,” he said.

Durham School Services has provided school bus transportation for Charleston County schools since 2007. The company’s contract with the school district will end on July 1.

A total of 68 percent of the more than 400 buses used to transport Charleston County students are state-owned and maintained. The average age of a Durham bus is seven years, while the average age of a state bus is 19 years.

Curtis Norman, director of transportation for Charleston County schools, said on Tuesday the school district only received two new buses from the state this school year.

School bus drivers raised concerns Monday about bus safety and delayed maintenance at a forum sponsored by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, and the Teamsters Local 509 of West Columbia, which represents local school bus drivers.

Some drivers and labor organizers raised issues with Durham, holding the company accountable for what they described as unsafe conditions for drivers and students.

Durham spokeswoman Molly Hart, in a statement issued Tuesday, said the forum was nothing but “an attempt by the Teamsters to attack our company,” saying that if the forum “were truly anything more,” the union would have raised their concerns when they negotiated a five-year labor contract with Durham in 2013.

Bobby said the majority of the issues raised by drivers stem from the district’s aging state buses.

“When drivers bring concerns up about the quality and conditions of buses, rarely are they referring to Durham buses,” Bobby said. “More often they are referring to buses the state owns and maintains.”

The district has received contract proposals for school bus services from three companies including a new proposal from Durham as well as New Jersey-based Student Transportation of America and First Student, which provided school bus services in Charleston County prior to Durham.

Jason Moyer, national director of business development for Student Transportation, said his company’s plan includes arranging for the district to lease 370 new buses, which Student Transportation would then operate and maintain. Student Transportation, which has an office on Daniel Island, currently runs 10 buses in the Charleston area, providing bus transportation for private schools and for field trips for Charleston County elementary schools.

Details of Durham’s and First Student’s proposals were not immediately available.

Bobby said the district is in the process of reviewing all the proposals. The county school board is scheduled to vote on a new transportation contract next month.