It may have taken two meetings and two motions at California R-I Board of Education's Jan. 17 meeting, but the district has selected its student transportation provider.
The board approved a five-year extension with First Student at the meeting, following a second round of bids after the December meeting. Initially, the district only received a sole bid — from Durham School Services of Central Missouri — in early December. While Durham's bid was cheaper than First Student's figures for 2024-25, several members were uneasy with proceeding without a second bid.
Two companies responded to the district's second request for proposals process, Durham and First Student.
Durham was still cheaper than First Student, which has provided transportation services to the district since its February 2022 purchase of Apple Bus, the district's previous provider. The board approved a contract in May with First Student that featured an automatic renewal for three years while locking in a 4-percent annual increase.
At the time, Superintendent Daniel Williams explained the 4-percent increase was crucial as neighboring districts served by First Student, such as Jefferson City Public Schools, were experiencing annual increases as high as 19 percent. Jefferson City Public Schools opted to sign a new contract with Student Transportation of America, who also replaced First Student for Columbia Public Schools, at its December meeting.
However, Durham's bid for $258.82 per day for a single 71-passenger bus route — or $481,146.38 for the district's 11 daily routes spread across 169 days — did not have the annual increases.
According to the contract approved in May, the district presently pays First Student $256.26 per day per route. Accounting for the annual increases, First Student will charge $266.51 in 2024-25 and $277.17 in 2025-26. The district could have saved more than $34,000 in 2025-26 alone by switching to Durham, and nearly $100,000 in 2028-29. (The figures do not include other daily routes ran by the district throughout the school day, such as transporting students to and from Nichols Career Center.)
Cost, however, was not the only factor considered in selecting a transportation provider. In a report to board members, Williams ranked Durham and First Student on six criteria -- cost, experience, financial stability, reliability, references and their proposal.
Of those criteria, Williams said, Durham only came ahead in one — cost. Both companies were equally ranked on their proposals.
Williams continued that not all references from area school districts using Durham were favorable. He had his own negative experience with Durham a decade ago as a principal at California Elementary School. Durham served the district then, and parents had difficulty contacting their offices, resulting in calls to the school.
"I know what I have with First Student, and I know what we've dealt with day in and day out for last year and a half using First Student. I've never worked with Durham outside from a principal level. ... Sitting in this role, you have a totally different set of lenses and what issues you deal with on a day-to-day basis," Williams said. "I did reach out to some of those local school districts to get references. ... I would say that some of those references did not come back in a positive nature for Durham."
"There's a time and a place to cut money in a budget," he continued. "This could be so impactful to kids, when they're transporting our most precious cargo every single day. It's not one I can, in good conscience, say I'm willing to take the risk on for the savings."
Board Vice President Allison Kruger recalled the problems Williams mentioned.
"I've been on the board a long time and we struggled several years before we made this change (to Apple Bus), and I don't want to see us go back there," she said. "And I see that a lot of problems we had, other districts are still having that issue. ... Service means a lot to me, I want to take care of our kids. If we have a problem when we call somebody, I need them to answer then."
First Student offers other benefits, Williams said. With the ongoing driver shortage, First Student is able to pull drivers from surrounding districts they serve. That benefit helped take Pintos football players to a game in Odessa, he said, with an Odessa driver picking them up and returning them. A driver from Boonville helped on another occasion.
While Durham serves many area districts, Williams said they are smaller districts with only one or two routes.
It took two motions for the board to approve Williams' recommendation to maintain the district's relationship with First Student. The first motion failed, with Ryan Porter and Brandon Dunham voting against it, and Tony Haile and David Cook abstaining. Haile and Cook voted in favor of the second motion, passing it.
Although the board approved maintaining the district's relationship with First Student, Williams said the district's legal team will need to negotiate with First Student's legal team to reach an "actual operating contract."