JPS board balks on new bus contract; status quo for now

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Amid continued pressure from the state, the Jackson Public Schools District Board of Trustees voted against privatizing bus transportation as a means of fixing chronic issues with students arriving late to school.

In a 3-3 split vote, a motion to award a contract to First Student, Inc. failed.

Although the lengthy discussion did not result in a definitive plan to revamp transportation, board members and district leaders acknowledged change is necessary for the district. School buses arrive chronically late to school, resulting in lost instruction time for students.

The district is currently in the midst of an investigative audit by the Mississippi Department of Education which last year found the JPS in violation of 22 of the 32 state accreditation benchmarks.

Board members Jed Oppenheim, Kodi Hobbs, and Rickey Jones voted against the proposed contract. Board president Beneta Burt, Richard Lind and Camille Stutts Simms voted in favor of the motion.

JPS board member Kimberly Campbell

Board member Kimberly Campbell was not present, and because the vote was tied the motion failed. At the end of the meeting Burt announced Campbell was resigning from the board.

When reached by phone, Campbell said she didn’t have a comment on her resignation, but felt it was best to resign because her current position as state director of AARP requires her to travel frequently. The new board member from Ward 2 will be appointed by the mayor of Jackson, likely after Chokwe Antar Lumumba is sworn into office.

Campbell’s resignation does not go into effect until May 30th, so she could have participated in the vote if she was able to attend the meeting. Campbell said it would be unfair for her to say whether she would have voted in favor, but generally errs on the cautious side when considering hiring outside vendors.

“I’m not the quickest one to be happy with consultants and outside contract work in general,” she said. “If I were able to be there today some of my questions would have been along those lines.”

At a work session earlier this month, board members were briefed on the state of their corrective action plan (CAP) by representatives from Bailey Education Group, a consulting agency hired to help the district with the CAP and audit process.

At the meeting, Ann Moore of Bailey Education Group told members that internal audit reports show between 20 to 30 percent of district school buses arrive late daily because there are not enough buses or personnel, which causes some drivers to double up on routes.

At a workshop before the regularly scheduled board meeting on Tuesday night, JPS transportation director Derick Williams said elementary and middle schools have a 97 percent rate of getting students to school on time. High schools are between 90 and 95 percent, he said.

“We’ve noticed that at Murrah (High School) they have 32 buses, and at one point we were at least 16, 17 buses late a day,” Williams said. “We’ve got it down to about four.”

Williams explained there are a litany of reasons why buses arrive late — some break down, others get caught in traffic on the interstate, and others are slowed by the door-to-door student pick ups.

Jackson Public Schools

Fredrick Murray, interim superintendent for Jackson Public Schools

“I guess what it boils down to for me is our students are not getting to school on time,” Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray said. “It’s habitual in some places. There has to be a solution in place for next year to get students to school on time.”

Board members could not agree on what that solution should be.

Representatives from First Student, Inc. provided two options to the board — both would have increased driver’s hourly pay from $11.25 to $16.25 with 4.5 guaranteed hours a day and benefits to employees. The drivers would begin the school year using existing bus routes, but eventually the company would revise bus routes to make them more efficient. The price differed from $7.9 million to $8.7 million depending on whether the district would purchase new buses or let the company purchase them, which increased the cost of the contract.

Oppenheim questioned whether an outside agency was necessary to increase pay for drivers and rework bus routes, and wondered whether some employees would have their jobs outsourced.

During the presentation, First Student, Inc. representatives told the board they intended to keep all eligible drivers in the district and recruit others as necessary.

JPS

JPS Executive Board President Beneta Burt

“We are where we are tonight because we have to adhere to a corrective action plan for which we will lose our accreditation if we do not do what we are supposed to do,” Burt said. “At this point we don’t have in my opinions any options other than to ensure parents and MDE as well as we need to collectively know that our children are going to school every day on time.”

With no new contract,  Williams and his staff will continue to work with bus drivers and district officials to get students to school on time.