Despite county schools being virtual through at least January because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Howard County Board of Education recently approved an amendment to the school system’s contract with bus companies to continue to pay bus drivers — at a reduced rate — during the first semester.
The amendment means at least $11 million will be paid to school bus companies that are not driving kids to school through January, school system officials said during a virtual school board meeting Sept. 10. The vote passed 5-1, with member Christian Delmont-Small as the lone member to vote against the amendment. Member Jen Mallo was marked not present for the vote, and student member Zach Koung couldn’t vote because student members cannot vote on issues pertaining to budget, personnel or other restricted matters.
The goal is to keep the bus companies viable while also not spending too much for bus services that aren’t being used due to virtual learning, school system purchasing director Doug Pindell said.
“We have worked with the contractors to strike that balance as best as we can,” Pindell said. “When we need them, they’ll be there, while also realizing the fiscal responsibility we do have. We feel that this was the best compromise we could strike in accomplishing those two critical areas.”
The amendment will pay the county’s 31 bus contractors 75% for all inactive bus routes, which includes pay for time and mileage but not for fuel. Any active routes, which could include the school system’s plans for small-group instruction for some students beginning soon, would be paid at the normal rate.
The adjustment could save the school system between $5 million to $9 million from the original contract, depending on how much in-person learning occurs in the first semester, according to school system executive director of budget Darin Conforti. Funding for the bus contract was included in the fiscal 2021 budget, so no additional funding was required in the passage of the amendment.
“We don’t want to do something that will cause us to not have the services of transportation, but we also want to find that balance to allow us to maintain some levels of savings because of reduced services,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said.
The amendment is a change from what the school system did in the spring, when the bus contractors were paid 100% for all routes. The only reduction in the spring was to fuel costs since buses weren’t running. From March until the end of the 2019-20 academic year, the school system paid $10 million to bus companies. No payments were made over the summer.
“We knew [paying 100%3/8 was not a financially sustainable position for us to be in given the very difficult situation the fiscal year 2020 budget presented us all,” Conforti said. “This is a much more balanced option. It did come with a great deal of compromise with the bus contractors. But it does thread the very small needle between us being good stewards of the public’s money and protecting the long-term interest of the bus contractors, because we need each other.”
Several board members — Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo, Sabina Taj, Chao Wu and Delmont-Small — all said services like meal or Wi-Fi hot spot deliveries could be a way to utilize the money already being paid to bus drivers.
“Paying $11 million for bus transportation but not getting anything … I’d like to use some of that money,” Delmont-Small said. “I know it says it’s to help bus contractors remain viable while normal school transportation needs are disrupted. I appreciate that, but I also have a fiduciary responsibility to the tax dollars and the funding. I asked if we could get something in return for our money. Other jurisdictions are using buses for [Wi-Fi] hot spots or are using them to get kids meals.”
Pindell noted during the meeting that the amendment is “more aggressive” than what other counties in Maryland are doing. In Carroll County last month, the school board approved paying bus contractors 100% of what they were paid before the pandemic.
“I just want to make sure that they get taken care of and that we have bus drivers, or else we’re not going to have school, period,” Carroll’s school board Vice President Marsha Herbert said during a Board of Education meeting in August.
Of the 75% that will be paid out for inactive routes in Howard County, 5% will be held and paid in a lump sum when normal operations resume at county schools. The amendment is set to end Jan. 28, which is when virtual learning could end in Howard County.
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Pat Stoetzer contributed to this article.
©2020 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.