RALEIGH — Nearly 800 Wake County students could be left without a ride to school next week over a dispute about how much money is being paid to the companies that provide transportation services to special-education students.
Zell Lucas, president of Lucas Transportation, said Friday he'll have to shut down service April 8 because the new contract that the Wake County school system negotiated for this year has put him on the verge of financial collapse. If Lucas closes, it would mean 774 students who live in southern and western Wake would lose transportation to and from school.
"The public doesn't know how bad the situation is," said Lucas, who has worked with Wake for 21 years. "They think we're making big money. They don't know we're losing money."
Other companies are also saying they're in danger of shutting down, which could affect more of the 2,500 special-education students serviced daily by private vendors.
Michael Evans, a Wake schools' spokesman, said the district expects Lucas to carry out the terms of his contract. He said Wake doesn't have the additional money to give to the companies.
School administrators have proposed more than $20 million in cuts to existing services and more than 70 layoffs. The transportation department is facing a $3.8 million cut.
In the middle of the dispute are parents of special-education students.
"A lot of families rely on them to provide transportation across the county," said Christine Ryan, a Cary parent and president of the Wake County Special Education Parent Teacher Association. "If it's gone, it would produce dramatic hardships for families."
The school system pays $12 million a year to transport students who can't ride regular school buses for various reasons such as being in wheelchairs or who are homeless. These students ride to school in a variety of vehicles, including cars, sport utility vehicles and mini-buses.
In 2008, Wake signed a four-year transportation contract with the private companies.
In an attempt to control costs, Evans said the companies were asked to give back money. He said the final amount spent last year was $15 million.
In June, Wake negotiated a new one-year contract that Evans said should keep Wake on pace to spend around $12 million for this school year.
Lucas and other vendors said they agreed to the new contract, even though it would pay them less, because they had heavily invested in new vehicles when they signed the four-year contract. Mark Vasconcellos, the president of Peters Transportation, which serves the Wake Forest area, called the new contract "financial blackmail."
Lucas said he's now getting $260,000 a month from Wake. But he said his monthly expenses are more than $300,000, forcing him to dip into his personal finances to pay his bills.
"I accept the fact that Wake County is short of funds," Lucas said. "But I don't see how they can expect us to use up our own funds."
Clarence Simmons, owner of Safeway Travel, said he's getting 40 percent to 50 percent less money this year. He said he's taken money out of his 401K and personal savings to keep the company running. He said he may go under any day.
Vasconcellos said he's getting 50 percent less money this year, which forced him to borrow money to meet Friday's payroll. He's warning that companies may wind up taking cost-cutting measures that could put safety at risk, such as not replacing tires as often.
"By the grace of God, we're holding on," Vasconcellos said. "We can't continue to operate this way."
Several of the private companies have hired a lawyer. Vasconcellos said the companies just want Wake to honor the original four-year contract.
Both sides are talking about how the other needs to think about the children who would be affected by loss of service.
"The budget is bad this year," Simmons said. "But that goes out the door when you're talking about special-education children."
But Evans said the companies can't walk away from the students.
"It isn't just about money," Evans said. "They have a moral obligation to provide these children service."
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