In the discussion over whether Carroll County's school bus routes should be put out to bid, only one question need be asked: Should the Board of Education continue the existing system or adopt a more cost-effective procedure that could save hundreds of thousands of dollars?
How can the answer be anything but the latter?
The opposition against introducing competitively bid school bus routes is ironic in light of the general recognition on both sides of the political aisle that all levels of government should undertake their tasks in a more businesslike manner. Carroll's current school transportation system is anything but bottom-line oriented, as a performance audit by KPMG Peat Marwick Management Consultants revealed last year.
The school system could shave as much as $1.5 million off its $9.3 million transportation budget by putting the bus routes out to bid, the consultants discovered. Even if the savings is half that amount, it would equal the cost of hiring 20 teachers, or 40 teachers' aides, or purchasing 150 new computers.
Each dollar spent on transportation is a dollar not invested in instruction. Competitive bidding should give the school board the opportunity to save money on student transportation at the same level of service while focusing more money on its prime objective -- educating children.
True, changing the method of awarding bus routes will hurt some bus contractors. Those who can't manage their businesses well and control their costs won't be able to compete. In a free enterprise system, only the best-run operations survive.
The purpose of the school bus system is to transport children to and from school. It is not a business preservation effort obligated to keep inefficient operators afloat. Arguments that bidding might result in the demise of local bus companies carry immense emotional weight, but the fate of these bus companies must not be the school board's concern.
The board's obligation to Carroll taxpayers is to purchase the best transportation service at the least possible cost. Its obligation to Carroll parents is to transport their children safely to school for a worthwhile educational experience. Nowhere in the board's mission statement does it mention a promise to keep all bus contractors in business.