School buses in Wichita might be sporting a "First Student" label instead of "Durham" next school year.
Although the name change might be the only difference noticed by students and their families, school officials said a change in the company providing transportation service would mean newer buses and a few more safety features.
Board members are set to vote tonight on whether to end a 14-year relationship with Illinois-based Durham School Services and award next school year's contract to Cincinnati-based First Student. Durham is the nation's second-largest school transportation outsourcing company; First Student is the largest.
If the board approves the suggested seven-year contract with First Student, its buses would be on the road by August.
Durham's vice president for customer services signed up to speak at tonight's meeting.
Durham "would like to continue as a safe and reliable partner" with Wichita schools, national spokeswoman Tiffini Bloniarz wrote in an e-mail.
She said Durham officials want to wait for the school board's vote before commenting further.
The change has been two years in the making, said Darren Muci, the district's operations division director.
He said the district wanted to seek transportation proposals from other companies as early as two years ago. But officials decided to delay the process and extend Durham's contract to make a smoother transition in ending the busing for integration policy in 2008.
Durham still provides quality transportation to the district's roughly 23,000 bus riders, Muci said, but he said First Student showed administrators on the selection team that its company could do it better.
"Two large companies were competing for our business," he said. "There was a selection and review of proposals, and we thought the district would be served best with First Student."
Each company proposed an annual cost of about $20.3 million, including technology and other services.
But First Student came in with a proposed lower cost to run buses per day: $114,177 versus Durham's proposed $117,253 per day.
Because transportation companies provide services, they aren't subject to the same competitive bid process as companies bidding on construction or selling products, Muci said.
First Student currently runs 800 buses in nine Kansas school districts, including Shawnee Mission, Olathe and Lawrence.
Wichita administrators on the selection team said they took a trip to Johnson County this month to evaluate First Student services there.
Process for change
The change would mean about 600 bus drivers and 150 other Durham employees in Wichita would be applying for new jobs.
Most of the drivers should be able to find employment with First Student and at the same starting rate of $12 an hour, Muci said.
"For people driving for Durham, chances for re-employment are really high," he said.
First Student spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said the company would hire drivers from the Wichita area, but she said there won't be many specifics on the process until a contract is approved.
In applying for First Student, all bus drivers will undergo that company's background check, which is similar to Durham's.
Muci said the district will perform its own background check using applicants' fingerprints.
Driving records of First Student driver applicants are checked, and drivers' records are reviewed regularly, Bastian said.
Muci said First Student bus barns and business offices in Wichita should be in the same locations as Durham's because the new company is planning to take over the leases Durham has on the four bus lots.
Newer buses, technology
The new bus contract will also bring newer buses.
Currently, the roughly 1,500 buses Durham uses in Wichita are up to 11 years old. The new contract would require buses be no more than 7 years old.
As they do now, all buses would have a video camera and a GPS system. But the First Student buses would have some upgraded devices and capabilities, Muci said.
Transportation supervisors could use the GPS devices on the buses to track their locations, he said.
Knowing where all buses are at all times could not only help in an emergency situation, but Muci said it also could give schools information about buses running late and help guide lost drivers.
Also, an alarm would go off if any bus left district boundaries.
First Student buses have a safety feature that forces the bus driver to go to the back of the bus after the vehicle has been turned off.
Drivers already are required by policy to walk the length of the bus to look for sleeping or stowaway students, but First Student drivers must turn off an alarm at the back of the bus with a key.
If the driver doesn't do that after a while, Muci said the bus goes "wacko" and would draw attention to itself anywhere it's parked.
The new tracking technology will help supervisors keep tabs on buses, but how the district decides routes will remain the same, Muci said.