The Hamilton County school board is rethinking the district’s transportation structure after the National Transportation Safety Board released an initial report on January 17 about the Woodmere Elementary school bus crash that killed six children and injured several others late last year.
The two-page long report reveals little more about the November 21 crash than what NTSB investigators and the Hamilton County Board of Education had already reported at several press conferences following the crash, but local educators are ready to rethink the role of independent contractors within the district’s transportation system.
Durham School Services—the company hired out to operate over 75% of the district’s more than 200 bus routes, and who was responsible for the fatal crash—faces competition from other companies as its contract expires this summer. The Hamilton County school board last week voted to increase the number of routes given to independent drivers to 69, up from 49.
The board also sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a four-year contract to cover the remaining bus routes. The RFP allows district officials to begin negotiating with private companies such as Durham, who may still be in consideration after it recently began safety upgrades to its equipment.
Durham CEO David Duke told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in December that the company was aware of two speeding complaints against driver Johnthony Walker before the crash, but claimed that they were unaware of the more than 30 pages of complaints and letters from parents and students regarding Walker that Hamilton County Schools released in late November.
District Transportation Director Ben Coulter says he talked with Durham about those complaints before the crash, however. Many of the complaints allege that 24-year-old Walker regularly sped on his route.
The new NTSB report does not address the speeding issue, but Chattanooga police officer Joe Warren testified on December 15 that Walker was likely going 18-22 MPH over the speed limit at the time of the crash. Warren also said that Walker may have been using a cell phone when he lost control of the bus at a curve in Talley Road.
State Representative JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, is now pushing seat belt legislation in response to the November crash. Favors told the Times Free Press this week that she had “talked with several people about it” and didn’t anticipate a fight over the bill, which would require buses purchased after July 1, 2016 to be equipped with NTSB-approved safety restraint systems.