Bus contractors take message to legislators

By Ronald MacArthur

Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) went to the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) for the first time in his 16 years in the General Assembly on March 8 to ask the committee to take a serious look at the plight of the state’s school bus contractors. He said he feels optimistic that the JFC will address the needs of the contractors. “This was the first time I’ve carried an issue to the JFC asking them to give it special consideration,” Venables said. “But if we don’t do something now, it’s going to be a bigger problem than the prison issue in my opinion. It is really a dire situation and I can’t understand how we ever got into this situation.” School bus contractors have been complaining for the past year about the contract they have with the Department of Education. Contractors claim they are going broke under the current system. Contractors have asked the state for a minimum of $6.8 million. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s budget contains $2.5 million earmarked for school transportation. “Most of that is for fuel adjustment in the future and for growth to add more bus routes,” Venables said. “It comes down to $381,000 to address the issue which is an insult to the contractors.” On March 8, contractors and drivers met with legislators and Maurice Moore of Lewes, representing the Sussex Contractors Association, spoke before the JFC. Prior to the meeting in Dover, in a show of solidarity, more than 60 drivers and contractors from districts in Sussex drove their buses and met in the parking lot at the Camden Wal-Mart on US 13. Moore met with group to explain what he was going to say before the JFC later in the morning. “We are transporting the world’s most precious cargo everyday safely, while many of the contractors are operating their business at substantial losses,” Moore told the committee. “Many of us have depleted our personal savings, taken thousands of dollars in unsecured lines of credit, mortgaged our homes and even refinanced our buses for longer terms in order to fulfill our end of the contract agreement. Now it is time for the state of Delaware to step up to the plate and support school bus contractors.” Moore and the association have asked the state for no less than $6.9 million to be divided up among the state’s 1,552 contractors. “When it is all said and done we would be receiving an additional $4,400 per contract,” Moore said.
Venables said that to achieve everything that needs to be done for the contractors an additional $18 million is needed. “We are about 30 percent behind, but the $6.9 million will keep things rolling,” he said. He feels confident that the JFC got the message on March 8. “It will cost us some other programs and some money will have to be moved around, but I’m optimistic that the JFC will address this,” he added. Ken McDowell, a contractor in the Woodbridge School District, also spoke to the JFC. He suggested that the JFC consider approving the contractor’s association proposal and to use the Cape Henlopen position paper (story in the Feb. 3 edition) as a guide for the next two to three years to receive further advancements and changes in the contract. Venables said that the JFC will make its recommendations in May. For some contractors, the action may be too late. “The situation is getting worse and I can see some routes sitting without drivers next year,” said contractor Debbie Aaron of Laurel. “We need to know something pretty soon.” She said that contractors make decisions to renew contracts in late spring and early summer.

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