At the Feb. 12 School Board work session, Transportation Manager John Thomas updated the board on transportation services. On Feb. 26, the board’s regular meeting, he presented proposed contract extensions for the district’ two bus contractors, Koch Bus Company and Positive Connections.
About 8,000 students receive transportation through the district, including 650 non-public school students. Thomas noted that new school start are tighter this year than before. A bus that runs late on an early morning route is more likely to continue to be late because there is less down time between routes. This, and most other issues, are compounded by a shortage of bus drivers, Thomas said. Without drivers in reserve, it is difficult to relieve a route that is running late. Few additional buses and drivers have become available in the last month, allowing his department to adjust and fixing some routes.
The low unemployment rate in Minnesota means high competition for drivers who can make as much or more in other jobs that are not split shift. Eastern Carver County Schools is fortunate, Thomas said, that all of the district’s routes are covered at this time. While the district’s transportation contractor, Positive Connections, increased its hourly pay rate for this year, neighboring Eden Prairie has a higher rate, Thomas said. That school district runs its own transportation program, giving it greater flexibility with pay rates. Even with pay increases here, they’re not always enough to keep drivers, he said.
The district and its bus companies are recruiting drivers, and Positive Connections has brought in buses from its other garages. Some crowded routes have been split using an additional bus. Other challenges in the 2017-18 school year included road construction that closed Chaska Boulevard just west of the district’s bus garage. To compensate, the district temporarily stationed buses in the parking lot of Mills’ Fleet Farm in Carver in order to reduce travel time to routes on the west side of the district.
This Monday, the board received a proposed contract extension for transportation services – a one-year renewal with the option to renew a second year. The proposals are for a 3 percent increase for Positive Connections. Koch would receive a 4.25 percent increase. Koch’s larger increase will be offset by a plan for the company to use two district-owned vehicles in exchange for a lower daily rate for those routes. The proposed contracts include increases to driver pay and a higher requirement for available spare buses. Additional buses are needed due to demand from student activities, athletics and field trips. The board’s decision is expected next month.
Thomas discussed with the board that the economic climate is not favorable for competitive bids. He has heard that some large transportation providers are not bidding on potentially lucrative contracts because of concerns with the driver shortage. Looking to the future, Thomas said his department will be reviewing the pros and cons of running district transportation in-house, like Eden Prairie. That information will be provided to the board at a later date.