Despite strong protests from the independent contractors now holding school bus contracts, the Carroll County Board of Education voted unanimously last night to change the way it awards those routes.
The board will now begin phasing in a system of awarding contracts based on bids, instead of continuing the practice of awarding to the first eligible contractor to sign up. Currently, all contractors are paid based on a formula that includes the cost of the vehicle, driver salary, fuel and maintenance.
The new policy could give the board flexibility, Superintendent Brian Lockard said.
"If it doesn't work, we can change it," Dr. Lockard said. "This particular recommendation was one we considered for several months before bringing to the board."
By allowing competitive bidding, the school board could save up to $1.5 million, according to auditors with KPMG Peat Marwick Management Consultants. The independent firm was hired by the school board and the County Commissioners last year to conduct a performance audit of selected parts of the school budget.
Contractors have argued that competitive bidding would allow large companies from outside the county to put the locals out of business and would lead to inferior service.
But the change won't be dramatic in the first year; bids from only those contractors already on the eligibility list are to be considered.
Also, only newly formed routes will be put out to bid, so no one currently holding a route will lose out.
Any companies intending to submit bids for the 1996-1997 school year must sign up by Nov. 1.
About 90 percent of Carroll's public school students ride buses, and the school system's transportation budget is $9.3 million. The schools rely mostly on private contractors and employ only a few drivers, such as for some special education routes.
Bus contractor supporters last night included Cynthia Cummings, president of the Carroll County Education Association, a teachers union.
"I am here to ask your local support for our bus drivers," Ms. Cummings said. "I think the bus drivers have provided good service over the years, and there is no logical reason to change.
"There is no guarantee that money will be saved."