Litchfield School Board approved a new transportation contract with Hicks Bus Lines Inc. that will see an overall 2 percent increase in each year of the contract.

Board members Greg Mathews and Alex Carlson, and Superintendent Beckie Simenson negotiated the contract with Lyle Hicks, owner of the Litchfield-based bus line. The new contract is half as long as the last one, which was for four years, but provides the district with a little more flexibility.

Business Manager Jesse Johnson, who Mathews credited with the heavy lifting as far as creating a contract that met the school district’s needs, said negotiations were somewhat tricky because of the many uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel prices.

“It was an interesting year with negotiating contracts with inflation and such,” Johnson said during the Nov. 8 school board meeting.

When the school district went to a distance learning model during the 2019 and 2020 school years and didn’t use the bus line’s services in transporting students to and from school, “we weren’t covered very well in the contract,” Johnson said.

In negotiating the new contract, he said, the district and Hicks worked collaboratively to both ensure that the bus line could pay and keep its bus drivers on staff but also so the district would not pay full price for a service it wasn’t using. The two sides agreed on a rate of 85 percent the normal fee “in recognition of (Hicks’) commitment to their school bus drivers and staff,” according to contract language.

“That was a big one,” Johnson said.

Additionally, the new contract sees a change in a fuel price escalator clause.

“We were trying to get into an approach where we had cost sharing,” Johnson said. “It’s a shift. Not a complete win, but (it is) going in the right direction for the district.”

The escalator range now will be between $2.509 and $2.759 per gallon for both diesel fuel and gasoline or ethanol. If the average fuel price exceeds $2.759, the district will reimburse Hicks 100% of the difference. When the average price falls within the escalate range, the district and Hicks will share equally the cost. And when the average price falls below $2.509, Hicks will reimburse the district 100% of the difference.

That change in escalator language could save the district $6,000 to $7,000 per year.

The 2% increase in overall contract is expected to result in about a $35,000 annual transportation cost increase for the district next year, according to Johnson.