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Shelby County bus drivers warn against outsourcing transportation at first budget hearing

School bus drivers from legacy Shelby County Schools cautioned at a community meeting Monday that services could deteriorate if the merged Shelby County district fully outsources its transportation department as part of budget cuts planned for this fall.

The district’s plans to fully outsource its busing next year in order to reduce expenses are part of a 19 percent budget cut that reflects an anticipated drop in enrollment from 140,000 to 117,000 students. The budget shows some $3.8 million in savings from outsourcing transportation. The district is cutting 220 bus driver positions.

Interim chief financial officer Alicia J. Lindsay presented the proposed 2014-15 budget to a small crowd in Arlington on Monday. The district plans to cut spending from $1.2 billion to $961.3 million. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the budget to the district’s board earlier this month.

“We don’t need the same funds to cover the schools and central office,” given the number of schools that will soon be part of either municipal districts in Memphis suburbs or the state-run Achievement School District, Lindsay said.

The merged district already outsources some of its transportation this school year: It currently spends $13.9 million on contracted services, and close to $7 million in salaries. Next year it would spend $25 million on contracted services, but would spend far less on materials and salaries. The district also plans to sell its bus fleet.

The transition planning commission responsible for planning the merger of the legacy Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools, which went into effect last July, determined that outsourcing would be more efficient. Legacy Memphis City Schools had outsourced its busing, while legacy Shelby County schools had not. But the district reached an agreement to continue to employ Shelby County bus drivers through this year.

Bus driver Debbie DeGrow, who has worked for Shelby County Schools for 17 years, said at Monday night’s meeting that she believed the in-house bus drivers were more careful and more caring than their peers at the outsourced company.

“Even though we may be bus drivers, those kids learn something from us,” she said.

“When we did hybrid, we expected the other entity would be like us,” she said. “We discovered they were not.” DeGrow described bus drivers lifting students in wheel chairs onto buses without properly strapping them in.

She also said that drivers employed by the contractor were paid for fewer hours than they worked.

For this year’s cuts, drivers “didn’t have representation,” she said. DeGrow received a round of applause from a handful of others in the audience. DeGrow was the only commenter at Monday’s meeting.

The merged district also outsources its custodial services and maintenance. Legacy Shelby County Schools had outsourced its custodial services while legacy Memphis City had not, and the transition planning commission had determined that outsourcing would be more cost-effective. The district has since heard regular complaints about the quality of the janitorial services. The district has increased its planned spending on cleaning next year, though its overall spending on custodial services will drop from close to $24 million to a little more than $20 million.

Shelby County’s board is expected to vote on the budget proposal on March 25. The district plans to present the budget to the Shelby County Commission on April 30, so they are prepared for a May 7 hearing.

The district will hold three more community meetings  this week:

  • SCS Board of Education Auditorium, Wednesday, March 19 at 5:30
  • Whitehaven High School, Thursday March 20 at 5:30
  • Snowden Middle School, Friday March 21, 2014 at 5:30