School bus contractors denied delay in bidding

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Howard County school system today will accept bids for kindergarten bus routes for next school year after a Howard County Circuit Court judge yesterday rejected an attempt by local school bus contractors to halt the process.

Judge James B. Dudley refused to grant the bus contractors an immediate injunction to stop the bidding for the 50 routes, on which half-day morning kindergarten students travel home and afternoon kindergarten students go to school.

A request for a permanent injunction to stop the process is pending. No court date has been set for that hearing.

The legal dispute is part of the long-running disagreement between the Howard County Bus Contractors Association and the county school system over the awarding of bus contracts.

The bus contractors are upset that the county has decided to award contracts for all school bus routes through competitive bids rather than to continue paying them by a prearranged cost formula.

School officials have said the change -- to be phased in over the next decade as the current bus contracts expire -- eventually could save the school system more than $1 million per year.

But bus contractors have disputed the school system's cost calculations and charge that the change will end up costing tax payers more, particularly if the bidding process ends up driving many of the smaller contractors out of business.

In particular, the 31 contractors who were assigned kindergarten routes last year fear that more than half their drivers could quit if the contractors fail to win their routes back and are left without the midday driving assignments.

In these contractors' request for an injunction yesterday, they did not challenge the new bidding system itself but its timing. They argued that the county schools had not given them adequate notice for the bidding process by waiting to start the bidding until six weeks before the start of school.

They said the schools should wait to start the bidding process for the kindergarten routes until April, giving them plenty of time to plan for the 1996-1997 school year.

But school officials say that the kindergarten routes have never been awarded until the middle of August and that the bidding process will permit those contracts to be assigned even earlier.

Glenn Johnson, the school system's pupil transportation director, also pledged that his office will help contractors train new drivers quickly if any of their current drivers quit. The bus contractors question whether drivers can be found quickly. Gary S. Peklo, the attorney for the bus contractors, also disagreed that the contracts have not been assigned until the middle of August.

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