BURLINGTON – The most expensive bus contract in recent memory for the district was formally supported by Town Meeting during its second session.

With vendor rates uniformly spiking for districts seeking new bus contracts after this school year, the School Committee approved the lone bid returned to them by a 4-0-1 vote. Committee member Stephen Nelson abstained because his wife is a member of the Burlington Public School system. A thorough presentation of the 5-year contract was heard by Town Meeting before a vote was made.

The $2,295,751 bus contract bid is 37 percent higher than the existing contract that is set to expire at the end of this school year on June 20.

Robert Cunha, director of technology and operations for the School Department, admitted the new contract comes with a “bit of sticker shock” when compared to previous contracts.

“We are happy we got the bid, but slightly disappointed in the number of bids we got back,” Cunha said.

A total of 16 bus providers were involved in the bidding process, but only one bid was presented back to the district, and it was from the district’s existing transportation provider, A&F Bus Company, out of Billerica. A&F Bus Company has been the district’s provider for the last decade.

“We wanted competition,” professed Cunha. “A lot has changed from the bus contract bidding process of five years ago.”

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.

The School Department hired a traffic consultant this past January to help with the existing and new 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 has a proven track record and has worked with over 100 districts in Massachusetts for this same purpose.

The consultant was in attendance during the committee’s most recent meeting, restating transportation vendor rates have gone up everywhere for districts renewing their contracts at the end of this school year.

“There are new costs built into the contract compared to the original contract from five years ago,” the consultant detailed.

School Committee member Thomas Murphy, Jr. raised the point that there was competition, even though only one bid came back out of 16.

“It would have been nice to see some typical contract competition, but the fact that there was interest and [vendors] attending meetings and not bidding, in a way is competition,” articulated Murphy. “The vendors realized we had pretty good numbers with our existing contract and [A&F Bus Company] was in that room, and the other vendors figured they could not beat it so they did not even try.”

Murphy, along with the other committee members, reinforced their support for A&F Bus Company.

“I have been very satisfied with A&F Bus Company and I would have been disappointed if we did not end up with them,” added Murphy. “It would have been nice if the contract bid was lower, but I support voting it tonight.”

Pacifying Town Meeting

Town Meeting’s biggest criticisms revolved around the contract being 5-years and not 3 or 1, in addition to the recurring condemnation of only one big being received.

Several Town Meeting members used words like “disappointment” to describe their feelings towards the $2.2 million contract.

On the other end of the spectrum, many members understood the context of the bidding process when it comes to transportation contracts in 2019.

“Everyone was obviously disappointed there was only one bidder and that the financial increase was so large,” said Precinct 6 member John Iler, who is also on the Ways & Means Committee for the School Department’s financial matters. “The reality is the lone bidder came in at the bottom 10 percent of recent transportation contract that have been looked at. Even though the increase is large, this is about the best deal going compared to other school districts.”

Iles also mentioned transportation vendors do not prefer shorter contracts, like 3 or 1 years, as they like the security of a contract with more longevity.

Precinct 1 member Nolan Glantz expressed “surprise” that there was an actual debate on the long versus short contract matter.

“If we shorten the contract, the transportation bidder is going to charge more per year. It is basic business sense,” Glantz lectured. “It looks worse because we locked in a low rate five years ago, and now the rates have gone up. However, the benefit of 5 over 3 years is you get the new rate which would be better at 5 than 3, and we get that rate locked in longer instead of dealing with another rate jump in three years. I definitely favor this.”

Apparently, the rest of Town Meeting wised up to Glantz’s point of view because the members went on to overwhelmingly support the $2,295,751 transportation contract.

Town Meeting reconvenes tonight for its third and likely final session.

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