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Idea to privatize Johnson City's school bus service may not have legs

Gary B. Gray • Apr 25, 2014 at 12:49 PM

City-County Liaison Committee members Thursday received a brief report from Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl about the possibility of Johnson City’s switch to a contracted school bus service.

“This is just a first look, and I do not see, at this stage of the game, a statistical advantage to outsourcing this,” Stahl told a dozen or so city and county officials.

Stahl compiled some numbers from neighboring cities and counties that contract school transit services and found the average contract cost per bus was about $41,000. Based on Johnson City’s conventional 47-bus fleet, the city would likely pay a contractor $1,927,000 a year for fixed-route service.

Excluding special education and transportation, personnel and operations, Johnson City’s projected total cost is $1,409,660, a difference of $517,340.

“However, recognizing this difference does not factor in school bus replacement expenses that would be incurred during a particular fiscal year based on the current fleet replacement schedule,” he said. “Factoring in replacement costs of the buses over a 12-year period, and including annual personnel and operating costs for Johnson City Schools transportation (overseen by Johnson City Transit), it is estimated that the schools would pay a contractor $23,124,000 over a 12-year period.”

Over that same time frame, he estimated that Johnson City Transit’s costs would be $21,145,920, nearly $1.9 million less than if a private contractor was hired to do the job.

“No one’s walking to Cherokee (elementary),” said JCT Director Eldonna Janutolo. “We’re not a pedestrian-friendly city when it comes to student transportation. And when you take a school and put it in north Johnson City, it adds mileage and other costs.

“It used to be when kids got to high school one person would have a car and pick up two or three others. That’s not happening today. We handle the routes and the discipline. Me and my staff handle everything else. Contractors don’t do that. If you go to a contractor, you’re going to have to consider hiring more personnel.”

Stahl will soon be delivering his findings to city commissioners. But if Thursday’s meeting was any indication, Johnson City won’t be signing a contract any time soon. However, considering the weak economy and bleak preliminary budget numbers, both the city and county will discuss the matter further.

City officials will be contacting Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes to inform him of Stahl’s findings and to see whether county school officials want to entertain the broader concept of consolidating school transportation. The subject has come up in past City-County Liaison Committee meetings, but there has been no genuine effort to thoroughly research the possibility.

Follow Gary B. Gray on Twitter at @ggrayjcpress. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp.

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