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Dallas, Other Districts Are Trying To Figure Out How To Provide Bus Service Next School Year

Rosa Say

Voters chose to dissolve the school bus agency known as Dallas County Schools last month. The bus service will continue through the end of this school year while a committee oversees the dissolution of the agency.

In the meantime, the Dallas Independent School District and other districts that used the service are trying to figure out how they’re going to get kids to school next year.

Dallas school board trustees met last week and talked about their options for providing bus service. What did they talk about?

Dallas ISD Deputy Superintendent for Operations Scott Layne told trustees his staff considered three options:

  1. Contracted services: This is the setup Dallas ISD had with Dallas County Schools.
  2. Hybrid: This would be a combination of contracted and in-house services.
  3. In-house program: Dallas ISD would run its own bus service.

Layne said the in-house program is the best one for the district and has the most advantages, such as better accountability, less cost and more efficiency, and employees can retain their benefits from the Teacher Retirement System.

How much will it cost Dallas ISD to run its own bus service?

That amount is still unclear. Layne told trustees he’s budgeted about $54 million to operate the bus service in-house. But Dallas ISD covers a large area – 384 square miles and all or parts of 16 cities, and there are still many unknowns.

Under DCS, the system has 1,132 employees, of which 850 are bus drivers. And there are 925 buses.

One big issue is how much debt from Dallas County Schools that county taxpayers will have to take on. The DCS penny-tax rate is supposed to remain until the agency’s outstanding debt is paid off.

“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re meeting with Dallas County. We meet with them every week and we’re trying to work through all the issues,” Layne told trustees. “First, the debts and the assets. What is debt? We don’t know what that’s going to be. Currently, they have approximately $50 million in bond debt. They have $90 million in other debt. So is that penny gonna pay for their entire debt or is it only going to apply to their bond debt?”

There’s been a lot of concern about DCS employees like the bus drivers. Will they have jobs with DISD? Will they get paid the same rate?

Dallas ISD says it does plan to keep many current employees working for Dallas County Schools and that they’ll still be able to stay in Texas Teacher Retirement System.

However, Trustee Joyce Foreman didn’t hold back in expressing her concerns. During last week’s meeting, she asked Layne about it.

“Do we have any idea? We say we want to match the current salary, which is fair, but we’ll be taking away benefits from them. Do we have any idea how much we’ll be taking away from them?” Foreman asked.

“Not at this point,” Layne said.

“Have we looked at?” she asked.

“We’re looking at it right now.” he said.

What about other school districts that were serviced by Dallas County Schools. What are they planning to do?

There’s a dissolution committee that’s meeting regularly and all of the districts have a representative at the table.

Larry Watson, interim superintendent for Cedar Hill ISD, said his district has also been meeting with Desoto and Lancaster ISDs separately as well.

They’re considering their own transportation plan, so they don’t compete with each other. They would likely outsource the job and share the services, he said.

What’s the advantage for Cedar Hill and neighboring districts to team up instead of going with Dallas ISD?

Watson says it simply makes logistical and financial sense to partner with Lancaster and Desoto ISDs.

“We would share the mechanics. We would share the bus storage facility,” Watson said. “We would share the dispatch, so I think that simply in itself dividing that by three would be economically advantageous to us. Certainly we would entertain the idea of Dallas providing the service for us if that were indeed the best choice.”

Watson said Cedar Hill and the neighboring districts actually started meeting before the election to try to figure out where they stood on the bus service.

The districts had questions about the number of buses they use, how many are leased and who drives their buses. Now, they plan to reach out to those drivers.

“Just planning with other districts to take over something that’s been in place for over 100 years is a lot of work that’s going to take a lot of man power,” Watson said.

Officials with all of these districts say parents need not worry – bus service will be available through the end of the school and they’re going to make sure it’ll continue beyond that.

You can see the Student Transportation Plan presented during a recent Dallas ISD school board briefing here.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.