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Baltimore County Public Schools decline to pay bus contractors during coronavirus shutdown

Baltimore County bus contractors were told this week that they will not be paid while schools are closed due to coronavirus.
Baltimore County bus contractors were told this week that they will not be paid while schools are closed due to coronavirus.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Bus contractors serving over 110,000 public school students in Baltimore County will not be paid during the school system’s coronavirus shutdown.

Jess Grim, transportation director of Baltimore County Public Schools, told bus contractors the district cannot pay those who service “regular routes, outside of our contract,” during the closures, according to emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Grim told contractors they would get payment Thursday for work completed through March 13, the last day before Maryland initiated school closures in response tothe pandemic.

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The “vast majority” of bus drivers in Maryland’s third-largest school district are employed directly by the school system, said Baltimore County Schools spokesman Brandon Oland. The county has paid drivers who are school district employees during the shutdown, but Oland said drivers for the county’s 149 contracted routes will not receive payment after March 13.

“Beyond that, the federal and state governments have implemented programs to support private businesses and their employees and the scale of those programs is well beyond the capacity and obligation of county government or us,” Oland said.

Students aren’t traveling for school, field trips or extracurricular activities at this point, so, Oland said, “there’s really no services” that the district needs from bus contractors at this time. He said there’s no language in their contracts that would suggest Baltimore County Public Schools is committing a breach of contract.

Baltimore County Public Schools is dealing with an “unprecedented, unexpected” challenge caused by the pandemic, Oland said, but he stressed the agreements between the school district and bus contractors “weren’t written with any provisions to support business overhead or employee wages during a crisis like this.”

Meanwhile, Carroll County Public Schools is paying bus contractors in full for nearly everything other than fuel during this time, according to a school system spokesman. A Harford County Public Schools spokeswoman said the district will continue to pay bus contractors at least a portion of what they would have made if the pandemic had not interrupted the school year.

Grim told contractors via email that drivers could file for unemployment. He also encouraged them to reach out to his office to address “individual or collective concerns.” Although Oland said they expect and hope their bus contractors will return if school reopens April 24, some contractors said they dislike Baltimore County’s approach to the issue.

“[Grim] had the audacity to send me a link for where to get a small business loan for $50,000, and that wouldn’t cover a month’s payroll,” said Robert "Squeak" Edwards of JDT Transportation.

Edwards has bus drivers in several counties, including 12 in Baltimore County. He feels bad for his Baltimore County drivers and has helped them qualify for unemployment assistance. He said he would have used Baltimore County’s compensation for bus payments, insurance and rental space for the vehicles.

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Additionally, Edwards said the school district put out a bid for new bus contractors this month. The bid was released in the middle of an existing contract with JDT Transportation and several other bus companies that is set to expire in June 2021. Edwards said he thinks the county should withdraw its new bid and honor the last year in the contract rather than having existing contractors rebid their services.

Likewise, Ron Prettyman of Whitcraft Services Inc. said the school district’s decision has created a “burden” for their company. He said his company stepped up to provide temporary relief to the county during a driver shortage the last week before schools were closed.

“We enjoyed helping the county when they didn’t have enough drivers. It was a team effort,” Prettyman said. “I don’t, however, understand how the decision was reached that we wouldn’t be provided any portion of payment, for the drivers and infrastructure that made us a valued member of their team just days before.”

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