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Bus Contracts in Two Utah Districts Under Scrutiny

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The use of private bus companies to transport public school students has drawn public criticism and state scrutiny in two Utah districts this fall.

The Salt Lake City district's contract with Tran Spec Contract Busing Inc. has been marred by glitches and even the apparent sabotage of some buses. The company failed to pick up more than 100 students--including special education students--during the first weeks of school. About 5,600 students ride buses in the 25,500-student district.

The Utah School Employees Association, which formerly represented the Salt Lake City drivers, has called for the district to rescind the contract with the Hanley Falls, Minn.-based company. The union vehemently opposed the decision last year to privatize bus service, though the company hired many of the district's drivers.

Though most of the pickup problems have been cleared up, district officials have also had to contend with the vandalism of several of Tran Spec's school buses. Acting on a tip, police inspectors found electrical systems and fuel tanks that had been tampered with, said Pat O'Hara, a public-transportation specialist at the Utah education department.

Sabotage reportedly led to engine failure in several buses.

Despite the problems, the district will retain the company at least until the end of the school year, said Sherri L. Clark, the district's public-information officer. "Our complaints have been drastically reduced," she said.

She added that the district would impose on the company a penalty of $1,000 a day for failure to pick up "any children who attend special education." The district might waive the penalty, she said, if Tran Spec agreed to provide additional transportation services.

Subsidies Overpaid

In the northern Utah city of Logan, school district officials recently received a bill from the state for more than $136,000 to repay transportation subsidies for the 1995-96 school year, Mr. O'Hara said. After a routine audit, the state also lowered by $159,000 the district's transportation allotment for 1996-97.

The audit found that more than one-fourth of the 1,500 bus riders in the 6,000-student district lived too close to school to be eligible for the state funds.

Under state law, students with disabilities are eligible for the subsidy no matter how far they live from school. Other elementary students must live at least 1 1/2 miles from school to qualify; secondary school students must live at least two miles away.

Logan Superintendent J. Allen Lowe said the financial loss is substantial. But, he said, the school board authorized the busing of some children who live close to school because of safety and other parental concerns.

Denver-based Laidlaw Transit Corp. provides all bus services for the district.

Mr. Allen said the district, not Laidlaw, will foot the bill for the students who don't meet the state requirements. The district's five-year contract with the company--which expires next year--"was not really responsive to the guidelines [that] we now see we need to use at the state level."

A new contract with Laidlaw is being negotiated.

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