For the 54 years that Duval County public schools have depended on private bus contractors to transport their students, the school system never bid out the service as required by state law.
At a heated workshop meeting last night, School Board members, the school system staff and the 119 bus contractors transporting students argued for three hours over when the bidding should be held and how many contracts should be awarded.
The bus contractors asked the board to delay engaging in a bid for a year to allow them time to prepare. But attorneys for the school system said a lengthy delay would make the board vulnerable for a lawsuit that could be difficult to defend.
Because it was a workshop, the board did not vote on the issue. The next step is for Superintendent John Fryer and his staff to draft a proposal combining board and legal concerns.
Awarding bids is just one suggested change to cut costs in the school system's $34.5 million transportation system. Next to salaries, it is the most expensive item in the system's $1.2 billion budget.
Most of the transportation savings would come from purchasing fuel in bulk and halting the policy of paying contractors for miles covering within their bus route and the miles traveled to reach the route. But the most controversial suggestion remains bidding out contracts and reducing the number awarded.
The changes were suggested by a committee assembled by Fryer. More than $500,000 in annual savings would come from awarding only six bus contracts rather than 119.
Renee Harris, vice president of Duval County School Bus Contractors' Association, argued that the preordained result of the bidding process is that two national companies will take over. Under the school system's bidding draft, one company can have three contracts.
"The committee is wrong to suggest larger contractors get lower prices," said Harris, owner of Harris School Bus, which operates 20 buses. "What is your objective, to put 119 contractors out of business or what?"
Currently, all busing route contracts are offered to the pool of existing contractors. If a new route opens, those who already have contracts have the first opportunity to pick it up. One of the 119 contractors always picked up the route.
Contractors begged the School Board to delay bidding out contracts for a year to allow for local businesses to prepare their bids. …