The Howard County Public School System is targeting the 2023-24 school year as a hard reset for some of its basic operations.
That decision, made in February 2022, has resulted in a shake-up in the school system’s bus transportation services.
On Jan. 26, the Board of Education awarded a five-year transportation contract for 230 of its 478 bus routes to Zum Services of California.
At the same time, though, the vast majority of existing transportation contracts are still in place — many for years to come — and cannot legally be terminated until they naturally expire.
The school system arrived at this point as a result of its 2022 decision to switch to later starting and ending times for all schools.
According to a fact sheet distributed at the BOE’s Jan. 26 meeting, later start times “became a catalyst for reform of student transportation services in the HCPSS. The RFP and the resulting contracts for service are a major element of this reform.”
Speaking at the BOE’s Jan. 26 meeting, Brian Nevin, director of the Office of Student Transportation, said the new transportation RFP reorganized the service model from individual routes to six service regions that will now have consolidated contracts.
“It makes it easier for us as an office to manage it and ensure that the performance level is at the expectation of the system,” he said. “One of the RFP provisions was that … (existing small contractors) could band together to have a prime contractor authorized to have subcontractors.”
Zum Services was awarded a contract worth an estimated $27 million to service Regions 3, 5, and 6 from July 1, 2023, until June 30, 2026, with one two-year option.
Only one local contractor — Tip Top Transportation — was awarded a contract under that RFP, amounting to an estimated $6 million for 58 routes in Region 4.
“None of us want to band together, we’re all in business for ourselves and we don’t want to work for another contractor,” said Mitch Gunther of M.B.G. Enterprises, one of the current HCPSS contractors.
“Drivers are upset about how the county went about this,” Gunther said. “The county awarded these guys contracts. They now have bus payments for the next five or six years and HCPSS is going to cancel their contracts, that would financially destroy these people.”
The change in school start times was just one aspect of the BOE’s decision to revamp its transportation system.
Another aspect is state legislation passed in 2022 that requires schools to begin purchasing or using zero-emission buses beginning in 2025.
In a release announcing its contract with HCPSS, Zum Services claims to be the first and only 100% carbon-neutral student transportation service in the U.S.
“The buses Zum will be providing to the Howard County Public School System will not be electric at the onset,” acknowledged Jen Burke, a spokesperson for Zum. “Until conversion to electric is complete, Zum commits to offset any carbon emitted by its fleet by investing in as many local Maryland community projects as possible that are dedicated to carbon sequestering and are certified by the EPA.”
The company will also be working with HCPSS, county and state officials, and key stakeholders to develop a plan to transition the entire school bus fleet to electric in the next five years through its Net Zero Initiative.
The biggest unanswered question is how HCPSS will iron out its contract dilemma.
“Generally speaking, the ability to approve (the Zum) contract is not going to impact bus contractors who have existing contracts that expire this year or in future years,” said Stephen Cowles, general counsel for HCPSS, at the January meeting. “They will expire on their own unless we all agree to move forward (with terms), that is something we’re still discussing.”
“My thought is that the county is using us as backup until Zum can get their act together, then they’re going to have to try to figure this out as they go,” Gunther said. “They have a lot of routes with two contracts on them now.”
According to figures provided by Nevin at the January meeting, 44 current bus contracts expire at the end of the 2023-2024 school year. An additional 74 expire at the end of 2025, 46 expire in 2026, 77 expire in 2027, and four expire in 2028.
Howard County’s contractors are in the dark as they try to figure out how transportation for the next school year will work.
“If Zum suddenly comes up with 230 drivers and takes those routes, is HCPSS just going to pay us to sit in our yards?” Gunther asked. “We have contracts and minimums on those contracts and they have to pay us. That’s taxpayer money, and I’m not sure taxpayers have a clue what’s going on.”
As of June 6, Zum was still scheduling hiring events in Howard County. The company did not respond to a request for its hiring status, and an FAQ section on the Zum website indicated that the company was still in the process of finding a location for its bus depot.