The Knox County School Board of Education approved a contract with Yellow Bus Transport Advisory, LLC, Wednesday, to begin training additional school security officers for bus ride safety checks.
"We established a program last fall to provide a safety check ride to every school bus driver at least once every 18 months or so," KCS Chief Operating Officer Russ Oaks said.
From January to the end of this school year, five school security officers completed about 130 hours of safety check rides for the district's school bus drivers.
KCS runs 350 buses a day, keeping 400 to 500 total drivers on the roster.
"We want to have about a dozen [officers] that we keep trained at any given point in time to perform safety check rides for our bus drivers," Oaks said.
The contract would train six additional school security officers for about $6,250 through Yellow Bus Transport Advisory. The training costs $1,250 per officer, but after five trainees, the fee for the sixth is waived.
"We’ll be doing a couple of dozen checks a week when we’re at full speed," Oaks said. "So each safety check ride inspector could do one or two checks a week.”
However, he said these inspections are completely different than the state-required equipment checks that the Tennessee State Highway Patrol performs each year.
"What we're doing is providing a safety check ride or inspection of the bus driver and how the bus driver is performing their job and operating that piece of equipment," Oaks said.
Not only putting an extra set of eyes on bus drivers, but making more security officers free to work.
"We'll be able to get through more check rides in a shorter period of time," he said. "Plus it gives us a deeper pool so we're not always having to go back to the same group of officers to perform check rides because it does take time away from other assignments."
The company's contract says school security officers will undergo background checks, drug screenings and both written and mock driving tests.
Oaks said KCS is also in search of a safety and training manager within the transportation department, as referred by a school bus consultant.
According to Oaks, that position would then allow the department to take a larger role in training its staff.
“[The consultant] felt that that was a weakness in the system because there wasn’t consistency in relying on the contractors to provide training,” he said.
Oaks said in addition to this safety strengthening effort, cameras and radios have been installed in about half of the district's fleet of buses. He said KCS hopes to have them installed in all buses by the next school year.
“The ones that we’ve had have been very valuable to us in solving some issues and some complaints that came up.”
The additional school security officers could begin training as soon as July if the Knox County Commission approves the contract at its meeting at the end of June.
An independent study released earlier this year found KCS operates a "fairly efficient" transportation system, but the lack of driver training has led to a "high incident of crashes" during the past five years.
The report, conducted by Missouri-based School Bus Consultants, was commissioned by KCS in the wake of a Dec. 2 deadly bus crash that killed two students and a teacher's aide.
That study noted four main issues:
- Drivers lack training, which leads to more crashes
- Bus driver pay is low and the bus fleet is "aging"
- The transportation system lacks oversight and needs more personnel to properly manage what is a "very large transportation system"
- KCS fairs well in key performance measures
The firm looked at crash data from June 2011 to December 2015 and discovered KCS buses were involved in almost 430 reported crashes, which ranged from drivers clipping mirrors to fatal accidents.
The Knox County Board of Education also touched on another of other major topics at their Wednesday night regular session meeting.
The board approved interim superintendent Buzz Thomas’s contract. He will make $180,000 during his expected year on the job. Originally he was offered $195,000 but voluntarily asked for the lower figure. Thomas will step in for Dr. Jim McIntyre on July 8.
The board also discussed a task force that looked at disparities in treatment of minority students.
Their proposed plan suggests changes like creating a student advisory council, restructuring in-school suspension (ISS) practices and increasing the number of male teachers in elementary schools.
"I had some very serious concerns about the board committing to certain actions with the funding not being available,” said Chairman Terry Hill, who introduced an amendment.
It states that the task force plane be implemented only as funds became available per board decisions.
“So if people ask why certain things did not happen then it will be very clear that the funding was not available, or the board chose to spend it on other items,” said Hill.
The board approved the motion with the new amendment, eight to one.
While the decision will take effect with the new school year, it will be with a new superintendent and a board with several new faces that see the changes through.