Exclusive: Tennessee State Senator Calls for Hearings on School Bus Privatization

Emergency responders at the scene of Monday's deadly school bus accident, which killed 6 in Chattanooga. (Citizen Slant)

By Mike Elk 

In the wake of a tragic school bus accident in Chattanooga that left 6 children dead, many are seeking for ways to reform the current system that allows school districts to outsource busing to privatized companies. An investigative report by Payday Report first revealed that Durham School Services had a long history of worker intimidation, safety violations, and low wages, which some say make it difficult to attract qualified drivers.

Now, following Payday’s reporting, State Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), the Chairman of Senate Democratic Caucus, is calling for the State Senate to convene hearings on the danger of outsourcing school bus services.

Legislation about seatbelts is really just scratching the surface” Yarbo wrote in an email to Payday Report.  “We need to know whether this company is making money by cutting corners on children’s safety. We need to make sure we can hire good people who can do a good job”.


Yarbo’s call comes as Republican Governor Bill Haslam has also called for examining the safety risks of outsourcing school bus services to private companies.

“I really think we need to take a whole, fresh look at school buses. From the beginning. From how school boards select contractors to how they hire drivers to whether seat belts are appropriate. There are a lot of questions out there” ” Republican Governor Bill Haslam told a press conference on Monday.

Its unclear if Haslam intends to push legislation to address school bus privatization. However, Haslam is increasingly facing calls to pay school bus drivers better and ensure that contractors hold contractors accountable for safety violations.

According to federal safety data, Durham School Services has been involved in 346 crashes in the past two years. These accidents have resulted in 142 injuries and 3 fatalities. During that same time period, the company was cited 53 times for “unsafe driving conditions”.  According to data compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “93% of motor carriers in the same safety event group have better on-road performance” than Durham.

Durham School services has also been notorious for treating their workers poorly. An analysis by the Teamsters union shows that between 2001-2013, Durham School Services was the National Labor Relations Board cited Durham 57 times for intimidating workers.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that the bus driver, Johnthony Walker, that in addition to his duties as a bus driver that Walker also worked the graveyard shift. Starting wages for bus drivers at Durham in Chattanooga are only $13.30 an hour and in order to provide for his three-year-old daughter, the 24-year-old Walker routinely worked from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. at Amazon’s warehouse several nights a week.

Additionally, many parents had complained that Walker’s driving was erratic. However, Durham took no action to remove Walker from driving.

“We have to ensure that their pay and working conditions are good enough that we get decent, qualified, focused people who can be entrusted with our children’s safety” says Yarbro “It’s hard to imagine any function more public than the school bus picking up and dropping off our children each day. There must be public accountability so that we make sure something like this never happens again”.

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report and a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, a workplace safety expert at MSNBC, and as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine.

Follow him on twitter @MikeElk or email him: melk@paydayreport.com

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About the Author

Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild and is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and has written for the New York Times. He also writes for The Guardian.

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