Duval County couldn't decide whether to save money or local bus contractors' jobs.
By Cynthia Barnett
For the past 54 years, Duval County's school board has contracted with more than 100 small-business people, including many minority-owned firms, to provide bus transportation. The board, however, wasn't bidding the contracts out competitively -- a violation of Florida law. The problem came to light in 1999 when Superintendent John C. Fryer's task force on student transportation found the board could save millions by bidding out the bus contracts.
What followed has been a remarkable chain of events pitting transportation efficiency against the livelihoods of the local bus contractors, with school board members, politicians and the business community whipsawed in the middle.
Ultimately, Fryer recommended contracts with four national companies that he said would provide better service and save the district nearly $13 million a year. The board first attempted to reject all the bids, then voted in April to award the contracts Fryer recommended. But after a campaign that saw hundreds of bus drivers, their families and even pastors pleading on behalf of the local contractors, the board did an about-face. At an emergency meeting, its members rejected all the bids.
Events swung again, however, as Jacksonville General Counsel Jack Mullaney exercised a little-used power under Duval County's charter and threw out the board's vote as "clearly illegal." Board member Gwendolyn Gibson responded by suing Mullaney. The local contractors filed for an administrative hearing. Two national companies dropped out of portions of their contracts, citing threats and the general environment. Four powerful black officials -- U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, state Sen. Betty Holzendorf, state Rep. Denise Lee and Jacksonville Councilwoman Pat Lockett-Felder, flexed political muscle on behalf of the local contractors. Jacksonville's big-business sector, meanwhile, flexed its own, spending $20,000 on ads supporting Fryer.
In June, the school board restored a degree of peace by finalizing a set of contracts that includes three national companies, one local company and a consortium of local companies.
The biggest casualty could be Fryer, a former Air Force major general named superintendent in 1998 to shape up the nation's 16th-largest district -- one with a long tradition of poor performance.
Student performance and school grades have climbed steadily under Fryer, but the bus fracas has raised questions about whether the board will renew his contract this month. Fryer says he understands the contention but is obligated to spend money efficiently. "I can sit back and try to do everything that makes everybody happy, or I can do what I think is right," he says. "I've done what I think is right."
In the News
Gainesville -- The Technology Enterprise Center of Gainesville/ Alachua County opened in late May with Cenetec, a technology accelerator company, as its anchor tenant. Occupying 30,000 square feet on two floors, the center is a new public-private partnership established to help early-stage technology ventures.
Jacksonville -- TriLegacy Group plans to give the city's former shipyards a dramatic, $782-million face lift. The downtown development project calls for a 350-room hotel, 150-slip marina, residences and 1 million square feet of office space on 45 acres of riverfront property along Bay Street. Construction is set for mid-2003.
Baptist Health plans to build a 125-bed hospital next year. The project will cost $60 million to $70 million, says President and CEO Hugh Green. Baptist Health operates four medical centers in northeast Florida.
Suddath Relocation Systems, a Jacksonville-based corporate relocation firm, has acquired American Security Corp., a United Van Lines agent with two offices in the Baltimore-Washington area.
For those seeking gutsy marketing ploys, consider the Jacksonville Suns. The minor league baseball team brought figure skating bad girl Tonya Harding to town to sign -- what else? -- miniature baseball bats as part of a promotion. Harding, you may recall, was part of a plot to assault fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Now touring the minor league baseball circuit, Harding had a somewhat fitting sponsor for her Jacksonville visit: Local bail bondsman Dave Valentine.
Ocala -- Hessport, a 2-year-old internet distribution company, will soon begin filling orders for more than 900 different products in the U.S. for British-based Internet Logistics, as well another 30 to European countries. The agreement also calls for Internet Logistics to distribute Hessport's Rubik puzzles and games in Europe and several Middle East countries. Hessport is looking for a larger warehouse facility in Ocala.
Ponte Vedra Beach -- Orthodontic Centers of America ["Accounting: Toothless?" October 2000] has purchased Torrance, Calif.-based OrthAlliance in a stock transaction worth up to $55.7 million. Both companies provide business management services, principally to orthodontists. When the merger is complete, OCA, which is affiliated with 400 orthodontists, will pick up 226 orthodontic and pediatric dentistry practices. Bart F. Palmisano Sr. will continue as OCA president and CEO.
St. Augustine -- Vilano Beach has begun moving to build the town center it envisions. A boardwalk running through the town is to be completed in September, and residents have met with architects to design pavilions that will anchor each end of Vilano Road. The town has raised $185,000 for the boardwalk but will likely need $250,000, predicts the North Shores Improvement Association. Two new hotels are opening this month.
The Conch House Marina Resort will undergo a $5-million expansion starting in September. The project will include 1,000 feet of bulkhead and a 185-space parking lot. The company also will expand several buildings at its Anastasia Island location and add 44 boat slips.
JACKSONVILLE -- Mayor John Delaney's first quarterly report on the Better Jacksonville Plan disclosed that the city owned only 33% of the land it needs to build a new courthouse, 58% of what it needs for a new baseball park and none for a new library. The city has acquired 149 parcels of land but needs to buy about 30 more. The land acquisition is projected to cost $17.2 million.