Huntsville City Schools board votes to bring in new bus company

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After a selection process, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education has chosen and approved a new transportation company to bus students across the district: Apple Bus Company.

Thursday, the board approved a five-year contract for Apple Bus Company to serve. The district will pay just over $11 million annually for the service.

This is a deviation from the current contract with Durham School Services. School officials tell us Durham did apply, but was not selected.

Apple Bus Company representatives present Thursday said the company will provide mostly new buses with air conditioning, GPS tracking, a routing system called TransFinder, cameras, and Wi-Fi compatibility in every one. They pledge to do maintenance routinely on buses, even when they are not in use. The company will seek to hire a general manager for the Huntsville area, looking nationally for that person, and it will also hold job fairs for qualified drivers to apply.

One of the biggest challenges it will face is recruiting new drivers. Apple Bus representatives say they have a good record for recruiting and retaining drivers, and they will pay $20/hour for beginning drivers.

"Staffing has been an issue here, we fully recognize that, and are fully equipped to attack that," an executive said.

The other challenge will be the time limit Apple Bus has to pull off its transition into Huntsville.

Company leaders say they will quickly be building a fleet from bus manufacturers, and they think all the buses will have air conditioning installed by the start of school. If not, it will be shortly after that every one has the capability up and ready to go.

"Apple Bus is going to be very busy for the next few months to make sure they can deliver what they said they can deliver," said Elisa Ferrell, school board president.

Apple Bus Company said it would do all it can to communicate with parents as they go through the transition into the Rocket City.

"We historically have done better than our competitors at recruiting and retaining drivers," said Mike Oyster, Founder and CEO. "We clearly understand that you seek change. At the root of that is a cultural change." He said that will take time, but it's important to them. "you build that over time. It doesn't matter who we are, we do a better job if we believe in who we are working for. To get there at the highest level takes people buying in."

Who Is Apple Bus Company?

Apple Bus Company is based in Cleveland, Missouri.

"We like being challenged," said one executive. "Why Huntsville for Apple Bus Company? Huntsville fits the bill on all our points. We prefer mid-size cities... We look for opportunities where it feels to us like the administration wants a true partner. We got that here."

Apple Bus Company has been around since 2000, Oyster said, and they manage 1800 buses in 7 states. They focus mostly in the Midwest and the South.

"Apple Bus is the better way of doing it," Oyster said.

Oyster said the company is ready to work with Huntsville and the administration on a positive relationship.

"We have a track record of success, and that speaks for itself," he explained.

He said the bus company would soon be seeking drivers, and anyone interested can apply online through their website.

History of Durham Concerns

This marks a change in Huntsville City Schools that many have been calling for for years. Board member Pam Hill has been outspoken about the previous transportation service, Durham School Services. Under Durham, parents and board members have been concerned about late buses, buses that don't come at all, communication, and the temperature on the bus particularly in the summertime. Durham has been working with school leaders to fix the problems, but this time the district will not renew their contract and has decided to go another direction.

Pam Hill, who has been a frequent critic of the bus company, said of the change, "This has been my baby only because babies are on those buses. Y'all, this is huge. We can't make them the best they can be if we can't get them there and take them home. I am so excited that I would have brought confetti."

The Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition has nationally spoken out against Durham School Services. It is formed of parents, educators, drivers and community leaders in Chattanooga who came together after six children died in a school bus accident there. The Coalition said in a statement to WHNT News 19 that they sent a letter Friday to school districts that contract with Durham to share their concerns about crashes and alleged safety violations. 

Of Huntsville City Schools' decision Thursday, the Coalition said:

“Our community in Chattanooga experienced the tragic consequences of Durham’s cavalier approach to safety first hand, but even two years later the company has failed to clean up its act,” said Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition member Walt Westfield. “We applaud the Huntsville school board for heeding the concerns of their community and taking action to hold Durham accountable. We hope this encourages other parents, officials and community leaders across the country to take a stand and demand the highest possible standards for our children.”