The School Bus Marketplace

April 27, 1995

The debate over how much government should be involved in subsidizing private enterprise doesn't begin or end in Howard County. But it is gratifying to see the county school system reject attempts to cajole it into continuing an arrangement that seems designed more to protect small bus contractors than to achieve sound fiscal management.

School officials' decision to phase out a system of paying contractors based on a formula of the contractors' costs in favor of taking bids for specific routes is a move toward common sense. The change could save the system more than $1 million on an annual transportation budget that tops $12 million.

The Howard County School Bus Contractors Association argues that requiring bids will force small, county-based contractors out of business. It is plausible that larger, stronger firms will seek to underbid smaller operators. But that is a problem intrinsic in almost any business and should not be the basis for singling out this industry for special consideration.

If the county, through its economic development office, determines that small bus contractors need assistance to make them more competitive, that is something it can pursue. But it is not the job of the school system to guarantee economic viability. Officials have a greater responsibility to taxpayers. Their goal should be to deliver the safest and most efficient transportation service possible.

Part of what the contractors' association perceives as a problem with the new bid procedures is precisely what makes it so important for the school system to proceed with the change. Officials want to switch to five-year contracts with providers from the current 12-year arrangements. The revision means that contractors will not be allowed to use the same bus to transport Howard students for more than five years. The association argues that is not long enough for small firms to recoup their investment. But never should depreciation of a company's assets take precedence over the safety of children.

The school system should not maintain policies that put private employer concerns above its fiduciary responsibilities. The system's premier obligation is to ensure safe passage to a worthwhile school experience for children; its responsibility to run a cost-conscious operation runs close behind.

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