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Sweetwater City Schools still does not have contract for buses; school starts next week

Education leaders said negotiations with contractors over pay are still ongoing. The school year is scheduled to begin on August 5.

SWEETWATER, Tenn. — Sweetwater City Schools said it is still looking for a way to transport students as the start of the school year fast approaches.

The first day of school in Monroe County is scheduled for August 5, but some families are wondering whether buses will be running.

The Sweetwater school system released a statement about the situation below:

"We sub-contract our bus service through the county. We currently do not have a contract for our bus services. With that being said, negotiations are still going on as we speak. I am prayerful that this gets resolved soon because I know the stress and anxiety that parents, school officials and bus contractors are going through as we attempt to find common ground. As a student that rode a bus, I see the importance of having buses and hope to come to a positive conclusion for all involved."

Monroe County Schools said on July 29 that most of the issues with covering routes are now due to bus driver shortages, not contract negotiations.

Monroe County Schools has routes that cover Tellico Plains, Madisonville and Vonore. The district announced on Friday, July 29 that it will be advertisting a third round of bus route applications. 

"We expect to have several of the Sweetwater routes and some of the other county routes picked up during this round of applications," Monroe County Schools said. 

Monroe County Schools said some bus drivers have left due to contract negotiations. The old contract included a $400 monthly stipend and around $1.38 per seat per bus, per day. The new contract removed the stipend but gave bus drivers a 3% seat rate raise.

Several contractors said they would not renew their contracts because they said the school system wasn't willing to raise their pay rates to the amount necessary to stay in business.

Katherine Baker was one of the school bus contractors in Monroe County who stepped back this year. Her company ran 11 routes for the district and has been for the last 7 years. She previously spoke with WBIR.

"In order to get me back, I would have to have a raise," she said.

Jay Miles is an independent contractor who chose to sign one of the contracts. After considering all the students that wouldn't have transportation, he signed the contract even though he didn't think it was fair to everyone, he said. 

"We want to help," Miles said. "This was a hard decision for all of us to sit back and say, 'No, we're not going to provide transportation.'"

For people who are not independent contractors, he said, it's even harder to make ends meet when calculating costs. 

"Our parts, repairs, stuff like that. We're facing a 35% increase in everything we do," Miles said. "I think a lot of this could have been avoided if they had left the $400 alone and we had still gotten the seat increase."

All 13 routes in Sweetwater don't yet have drivers for the school year. Miles said he is not sure what the Sweetwater City Schools is going to do for transportation, but he said he would take on extra routes if he is able to with his schedule. 

"If it's along my route and room permits, I'll be more than happy to pick them up," he said. 

Miles said he hopes the school board and the board of transportation will sit down with contractors to work out a new deal.

"We all need to sit down and work together and come up with a solution to get to the end of this because we understand there are going to be lots of parents who are going to have issues, and they're not going to have a way to get their children to school," Miles said. 

The school district awarded seven contracts at the transportation committee meeting in June. However, Baker said there used to be about 50 contracts. The vast majority of contractors did not re-apply.

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