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Parents, drivers oppose school bus bidding plan


Carroll County educators, parents and school bus drivers remained polarized last week in the debate over whether Carroll County schools should award bus route contracts based on competitive bids or continue a sign-up system in which the county sets the pay rate.

Education officials who support a bidding system argue that local school bus contractors would have an advantage under it, but the local contractors contend it would put them out of business.

Some parents worry that contractors from outside the county would hire less conscientious drivers, but school officials counter that anyone who drives a bus in Carroll must meet the same qualifications.

Almost 150 contractors, drivers and parents attended a school board meeting Wednesday at Mount Airy Elementary School to express their opposition to competitive bidding, which the school board is expected to approve.

"Please stop and think about the long-term costs of bidding before it's too late," said contractor Charlene Lentzner of Finksburg.

"I've got grandkids in school," said Joseph H. Shrader of Hampstead. "When you do this bidding, you're putting a price tag on their heads."

Gary R. Brauning II of Finksburg said he became concerned about the issue because the bus drivers he knows are worried. Three of his four children ride buses to school.

"They're friends," he said of the drivers. "I respect them, trust them."

Carroll school board members are considering phasing in the bidding on more routes next year. They are expected to take action next month.

"I'm not wedded to the concept," said board member Joseph D. Mish Jr. "I am very concerned about big contractors coming in."

The Carroll school system has taken bids for athletic, band and field trips for many years, said James Doolan, the supervisor of transportation. Since 1990, the schools have taken bids for routes for special education students who attend out-of-county schools.

School officials want to find out whether bidding more routes will save money. An audit last year by KPMG Peat Marwick Management Consultants said the schools could save $1.5 million a year if more route contracts were bid. The current transportation budget is $9.3 million.

Contractors say the system works well now and shouldn't be changed. They sign up with the school board for routes according to the locations of their garages. Those who sign up first get the first chance to win contracts.

Reimbursement is based on a formula using costs for the vehicle, driver's salary, fuel and maintenance. Other Maryland counties use a similar formula.

"We just want to keep our routes," Mrs. Lentzner said. "They're forcing us to bid against each other."

She and other contractors said they predict that a large transportation company such as Laidlaw Carriers will underbid local companies. She said she makes a profit of $2,200 per year on a new school bus that costs $43,000 to buy.

Mr. Doolan said any company that wants to bid on a Carroll route must be on the county's eligibility list. Neither Laidlaw nor any other large company was on the list as of Thursday, he said.

Contractors who want to bid on routes for the 1995-1996 school year were required to put their names on the list by Jan. 1, he said. Those interested in bidding for the 1996-1997 school year must sign up by Nov. 1.

School board member Carolyn L. Scott asked how local officials would ensure that a new contractor would operate safely.

Mr. Doolan replied that any contractor must meet state and federal safety guidelines for its equipment and drivers.

He predicted that any contractor from outside the county would hire local drivers.

"I think the locals will have a definite advantage because they have the buses and are in the community already," Mr. Doolan said.

If the county bids school bus routes, it no longer will pay a driver from the time he leaves the garage, he said. Instead, it would pay the driver from the time the first student is picked up. That, he said, would give local companies an advantage.

For the 1995-1996 school year, the county is expected to bid routes for Head Start, midday Career and Technology, noon kindergarten, Outdoor School and some special education routes.

In the 1996-1997 school year, the schools are expected to take bids on any new routes that are added because of growth in the student population, Mr. Doolan said.

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