Durham School Services poised to continue transporting Charleston County students

Charleston County School District has issued a letter indicating it plans to award a new contract to Durham School Services. The Charleston County School Board will vote on a new contract next month.

Durham School Services appears well positioned to continue providing school bus transportation to Charleston County students, despite outcries by some drivers over safety concerns.

In a letter issued Feb. 14, the Charleston County School District indicated its intent to award a new five-year contract to Durham pending approval from the Charleston County School Board. The letter did not include details regarding Durham’s proposal or the final cost of the contract.

David Duke, chief executive officer for National Express, Durham’s parent company, said in an interview Tuesday that his company submitted proposals and pricing for multiple options, ranging from continuing with Durham’s current service model using its own buses as well as state-owned vehicles, to operating with a brand-new fleet owned by either Durham or the school district, to operating a fleet of buses using alternative fuels.

Duke stopped short of discussing specific details, saying “we’re still in the process” of finalizing a contract.

New Jersey-based Student Transportation of America and Ohio-based First Student, which previously provided school bus services in Charleston County, were the other two companies to submit proposals. Student Transportation’s plan called for the district to lease 370 new buses for around $4 million annually. First Student did not respond to a phone call or email requesting comment.

Notice of the pending contract with Durham came two days before a forum last week where school bus drivers raised concerns about bus safety stemming from delayed maintenance and chronic breakdowns.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, also has raised concerns, saying “the core problem here is unsafe buses for these kids.” Scott said she wants to see a commitment in the next contract to provide newer buses.

“I have no faith in any company that will sign a contract unless they come to the table and say, ‘You know what, we can lease some buses or bring in other buses,’ ” Scott said.

Duke said safety is “paramount” for his company, adding that Durham has not been able to verify many of the drivers’ complaints. The biggest issue, he said, is the district’s aging state-owned fleet, which Durham isn’t allowed to maintain or repair.

The school board’s Audit and Finance Committee is expected to review Durham’s proposal before the contract goes before the full board later in March. Board member Todd Garrett, who chairs the finance committee, said he hasn’t seen Durham’s proposal, but noted that the company has “provided a safe and reliable product.” For the next contract, Garrett said safety and reliability are his primary concerns.