St. Mary’s schools are purchasing hundreds of new digital devices, but they are not for students who are distance learning. They’re for bus drivers.
Synovia Solutions GPS will now be placed inside all St. Mary’s school buses. Jeff Thompson, the public school system’s director of transportation, asked the school board Wednesday to terminate the five-year agreement with Synovia that was approved in January 2019, and approve the purchase of 275 GPS tablets for $391,875 and a new five-year service with the same company.
The January 2019-approved Synovia agreement included 50 GPS tablets on all the contracted special-needs buses and all board of education-owned buses, that cost $24,500 a year for five years. The new contract will cost $1,425 per unit as well as a $60,500 a year for five years.
The GPS system gives tracking and tracing abilities to the department. Thompson said they can see “where they’ve been, where they are” and specific times of arrival. It also comes with messaging capabilities so the driver can communicate with the transportation office when the bus is not in motion, rather than relying on cellphones.
Synovia comes with an app called Here Comes the Bus that parents can download. It tells them when the bus arrives.
“We used it this year with the special needs buses and we got a lot of very positive comments from parents about how great it is,” Thompson said. He added transportation staff can send push notifications alerting them if a bus is delayed.
Other features include clocking in and out for board of education bus drivers, turn-by-turn directions for specific routes and information on the student riders.
Board member Mary Washington asked about the life expectancy on the tablets. Thompson said he believes the equipment will last the full five years but isn’t sure if the technology will update to force them to view other options down the road.
“Is there a danger of not finding drivers when we do open the school?” board member Jim Davis asked Thompson.
Before Thompson could respond, Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, told Davis “you are traveling down a road that we don’t have any answers to right now.” She added that the reopen date for schools has not been determined yet. “Anything at this point is just complete speculation and we’re trying to not have any, you know, crazy information out there that’s going to get people stirred up.”
Thompson did not answer Davis’ question after Bailey’s comments.
Superintendent Scott Smith added that the fiscal 2021 budget includes pay increases for bus drivers and attendants. He also wanted to emphasize that although there is a “double digit unemployment rate in the United States,” there is employment at the county’s public schools.
Cathy Allen, vice chair of the school board, chimed in to highlight how long bus drivers have stuck with the school system.
“How many systems can say that they have bus drivers still driving after 45 years?” Allen said.
Thompson said the school closures due to COVID-19 provided available funds in the transportation budget. If the tablets are purchased by May 22, they should be delivered by June 30 and installed in July.