BURLINGTON – Just when the School Committee thought the district’s new transportation contract was a done deal after Town Meeting supported the 5-year deal worth roughly $2.2 million, the Inspector General’s Office had other ideas.
This past May, Town Meeting approved the most expensive school transportation contract in recent memory for the district. The 5-year, $2,295.751 contract was the result of a lone bid returned to the School Administration, which was from their existing provider, A&F Bus Company, out of Billerica. The bid is 37 percent higher than the previous contract that expired June 20.
A total of 16 bus providers were involved in the bidding process, but only one bid was presented back to the district before Town Meeting. A&F Bus Company has been the district’s provider for the last decade.
Some changes, which have exacerbated bus contracts in the modern day, include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), insurance for bus drivers, and off-time training, all of which are costs included in the transportation contract. Before, those aspects were not a part of the transportation contract.
Though Town Meeting approved the contract, there were a decent portion of members who expressed displeasure in regards to only receiving one bid out of the 16 bus providers in the pool of bidders.
Long before the A&F Bus Company. bid was approved, the School Administration hired a traffic consultant to help with the existing and new bus contract process.
The consultant’s duties entailed providing assistance in what the district is looking to do in its next bus contract, reviewing and analyzing the existing contract to see if there are any downfalls or deficiencies, examining bus route options, and to see if there are any cost savings available when devising the new contract.
The consultant was in attendance at the most recent School Committee meeting, where he briefed the board on the current situation facing them. The consultant confirmed the School Department needed to do entertain a re-bid at the order of the Inspector General’s Office, due to a perceived advertising issue wherein the A&F contract approved by Town Meeting was not advertised properly in the appropriate marketing outlet.
“The Inspector General took the opinion that it was a requirement for the district to re-bid,” explained the consultant. “Burlington put the bid in another advertising periodical, but not the other that it had to also be in.”
This led to another bidder, Trombly Motor Coach Service, Inc., submitting their proposal for the district’s new bus contract, resulting in a $204,000 difference, with the A&F bid coming in higher.
This incensed the committee, as members cited unfairness in the bidding process.
“The idea that we have two bids, and [Trombly] knows exactly what [A&F] is going to be bidding, that just stinks,” lamented committee member Thomas Murphy, Jr.
Committee member Christine Monaco commented on the formal letter sent from the Inspector General, calling it “odd” and “pointed” as if the state office was directed to foil the contract that was approved by Town Meeting.
“It seems to me someone in the community, who was not happy with the prior bid process, complained to the Inspector General’s Office,” opined Monaco. “The letter said there are two people in [Burlington] Town Hall who can help you do this bid properly, and I do not think the Inspector General makes a habit of knowing what every Town Hall has for expertise. There is something about this that does not smell right. As a result, the new low bidder clearly undercut A&F’s bid.”
The consultant admitted an act such as this from the Inspector General “would have taken a complaint from within the Inspector General’s Office to even look at this.” He also pointed out that rejecting his recommendation, which is to go with the lowest bidder (Trombly), would lead to an “expectation of a challenge” from the Inspector General’s Office.
“You would need sufficient reason to reject the low bid,” he declared.
Piggybacking on Monaco’s remarks, Murphy talked about the uncertainties that may exist if the committee moves forward with the low bid.
“This creates a situation where there are going to be divided loyalties, such as whose calls would the [Inspector General’s Office] answer to,” protested Murphy, who restated his praise for A&F Bus Company, the district’s only bus provider for the much of the last decade. “We have had such good service with [A&F Bus Company] over the years and I do not think we are going to get the same service from [Trombly].”
Vice Chair Kristin Russo prioritized the safety of the children in the district using the buses over the approximately $200,000 that would be saved if school officials move forward with the lowest bid.
“Busing our kids is one of the largest safety issues we have. We are inviting these buses into our own neighborhoods and putting over 1,500 children on these buses in rain, snow, and wind. This is one of those areas where the money saved is very difficult to equate with the safety of our children,” argued Vice Chair Russo.
School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti echoed Russo’s concerns, but reiterated the consultant’s point that Town Counsel informed him that there needs to be a “business reason” why the low bidding vendor was not chosen. This can include a poor performance recommendation.
The consultant concluded the lengthy dialogue by giving the committee some advice as to what they should do next, if they choose to reject the low bid.
“If you have plans to reject the low bidder, take the 90 days you have to award the bid and speak to Town Counsel in Executive Session, and decide, at that point, if you have a legit reason to reject both bids,” advised the consultant. “The fact that one bidder’s numbers were on the table before the re-bid is a tough situation to swallow from the fairness perspective.”
With the committee clearly not comfortable voting on a transportation contract bid during this meeting, they tentatively decided to take care of this matter at its meeting on July 9, where they are hopeful to have all the sufficient information on-hand to reach a prudent outcome.