Many problems faced by student transportation providers, especially in private enterprise, are market driven. But some involve safety, on-time percentages and failure to fulfill contractual obligations. Then there’s Dallas County Schools.
The controversial taxpayer-funded agency provides no classroom instruction but instead transportation services to about 75,000 students in 10 North Texas school districts. Even though it is publicly-funded, technically, it still ranks as a contractor. Its troubles and critics are many; its friends are few.
The agency has been accused of a litany of transgressions including contractual violations, fiscal mismanagement, defaulting on debts, questionable land deals and reckless driving by its bus drivers. Then there was controversy over the relationhip DCS had with school-bus, stop-arm surveillance company Force Multiplier. DCS not only worked with the company to install cameras on its own buses, but also on behalf of other school districts across the state of Texas. In essence, DCS became a reseller.
State lawmakers eventually got involved and now the embattled agency is fighting for its life. A bill that would allow county residents to decide the agency’s fate is awaiting the signature of Gov. Greg Abbott.
A negative vote in November would dismantle the agency and free up school districts to assume the responsibility of transporting their students or find private contractors. This would be after the 2017-2018 school year.
The contracts with DCS have extended until next summer to give districts ample opportunity to find replacements.
Watching with particular interest are administrators in the Dallas Independent School District, DCS’s largest client. They are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to take up the slack and provide transportation services to smaller school districts should the need arise temporarily.
“In the event that DCS should no longer exist, we are prepared to take on the responsibility of transporting students for an interim period so students are not left without a means to get to school,” said Robyn Harris, director of news and Information for the district. “We are not interested at all in being a transportation contractor. We’re in the business of educating students and that is our emphasis.”
Harris defined “interim period” as “18 months or less.” She said Dallas ISD has 157,000 students, 40,000 of which ride school buses. “We are a large district and we’ve got resources that we can bring to bear on this,” she said.
News reports depicted Dallas ISD as a major critic of DCS. Their superintendent confirmed in published reports that the district had withheld payments to DCS for not fulfilling contractual obligations.
Harris said the district is watching developments closely and the deputy superintendent for operations has a plan in place if needed. She said the district does not want DCS to go away. “The good thing is we’re monitoring the conversations and know what’s happening,” she said. “We’re not hoping DCS fails, but if there is some version of disruption, we’re prepared to step in.”
One of the contingencies they will be watching if DCS fails is the disposition of buses, garages and other equipment, perhaps to acquire some of it. “Our focus has been on educating students, but we will do what we have to do to make sure students have the resources they need,” Harris said. “We will make sure to provide them with some type of transportation service.”