Wichita students will be riding newer buses with a new name next school year.
Saying it was time to try a different transportation service, the Wichita school board voted unanimously Monday night to end its 14-year relationship with Durham Student Services and hire First Student to shuttle about 23,000 students to and from school, field trips and activities.
"When you have a fresh look at something, it's inviting to look at the opportunity," board president Barbara Fuller said. "We wanted to take that leap of faith."
The change also means about 700 bus drivers and Durham employees will be applying for jobs.
Current bus drivers should have a good chance of being hired at First Student, said Darren Muci, the district's operations division director.
First Student buses wouldn't be on the road until August as Durham completes its contract through this school year.
The Cincinnati-based First Student is the largest school transportation service in North America. Durham is the second largest.
"We hire locally to the extent possible," said David Duke, First Student's senior vice president for sales, who attended the board meeting.
First Student is also working with a Hutchinson-based company to order new school buses, Duke said. The company will bring in some used school buses, but the Wichita contract stipulates they can't be older than seven years.
A Durham representative asked board members at the meeting to consider a dual contract — some routes going to First Student and some to Durham.
District officials said the routes would lose efficiency if the work were split.
Both companies had similarly priced bids of about $20.3 million. Administrators said transportation philosophy and additional use of technology put First Student over the top.
Durham couldn't have done more to keep the contract, said Robert Hatchett, Durham's senior vice president for customer care.
"We attribute it to the fact things change," he said. "Fourteen years is a long time to be in one place."
Administrators and board members said the contract was two years in the making, and they said no specific problem led them to end Durham's contract.
"I'm sure we're going to have some problems with First Student," Fuller said, referring to upset parents and mistakes that are common to the bus business.
First Student is facing some bigger issues in its home state of Ohio.
The state came close to suspending the company's license to operate buses this month because of problems stemming from not properly running criminal background checks on bus drivers.
The state decided last week not to stop First Student's buses, but fines are being considered.
The initial background check problems in 2007 closed Columbus schools for one day. First Student is on a two-year probation, and incomplete employee records found in an audit late last year were considered a violation of that probation.
Duke said First Student took steps to reform its driver background-check policy and process in 2007, and the latest problem had to do with a few employee training records — not criminal or driving record checks.
Muci said he has discussed the Ohio probation with First Student, and he said he is confident that lapse won't happen here because of the district's own background checks that go beyond what bus companies can do.
The district does a fingerprint criminal background check on all employees of the bus company, which Muci said is then run through KBI and FBI databases. Once the employee is in the fingerprint system, the district is notified if that person is arrested.
Board president Fuller said she hadn't heard of First Student's license probation in Ohio, but she said she also is confident in the district's background-check system.