BURLINGTON – School officials are inching closer to a decision regarding its current 5-year bus services contract with Trombly Motor Coach Service.
It has been less than a year since the district moved forward with the new bus vendor, but COVID-19 has altered what were once promising plans.
With students out of the classroom for the rest of this academic year, there isn’t a need for school buses at the moment, yet the need to pay the bills remains for Trombly Motor Service.
Nicole Coscia, finance manager for Burlington Public Schools, recently informed the School Committee that she and representatives from up to eight other districts also under contract with Trombly are in the negotiation process. Coscia confirmed she has been meeting with the Massachusetts School Business Manager and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to work through all the financial and business aspects that COVID-19 has brought on.
“The main concern is that these providers do carry large expenses on the books, which if unpaid, could put vendors out of business,” explained Coscia. “Then there would be no transportation services when school does return.”
Working with eight other area school districts, Coscia advised, “We felt, as a group, it is in each district’s best interests to approach this as a united group to work with [Trombly] so we can reach an amicable resolution.”
The legal counsel representative spoke during the virtual School Committee meeting, declaring the committee has “ultimate authority” in limiting the amount of bus services and they can determine whether or not to reduce or eliminate services. The town can arrange a “temporary agreement” with Trombly to assure the continuity of the services when school is back and buses are again needed.
A result of the initial negotiation saw the town tied to a 78 percent reimbursement rate that would cover out-of-pocket expenses for Trombly, such as keeping the buses, rent, overhead, vehicle financing, and drivers. However, this deal was discussed when the academic community was under the impression that school was returning on May 4, which isn’t the case anymore and the context of the negotiations has now changed.
The School Committee harped on the change of school year plans and restated there is no need for buses through the rest of this academic year, making the members’ top prerogative to make a decision on whether or not they want to pay the 78 percent reimbursement rate, try to deflate the rate, or simply not pay it and go back out to bid for a new transportation services contract with potentially another vendor.
“[Trombly] has shown very little interest in changing from the 78 percent reimbursement rate,” confirmed School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti. “They feel if they don’t stand firm on the 78 percent figure, then it could cause a domino effect for the rest of their bus contracts.”
When the dialogue on this matter began, the School Committee was vehemently opposed to paying the 78 percent rate, but some opinions have begun to change with members seeing a potential risk not worth fighting.
As Dr. Conti noted, the committee has three options, and they entail paying Trombly the 78 percent reimbursement rate, not pay it and likely pursue another bus contract, or reduce the amount of bus routes which would lessen the 78 percent rate down 25 percent to 53 percent.
“Not paying does not come without risk,” advised Dr. Conti. “[Trombly] could come back during the bidding process and we could end up paying more for a new bus contract.”
It was acknowledged that Trombly could end up litigating the town, if they believe the town’s lack of payment breaches the existing contract.
“I am not sure it is worth the effort to re-negotiate the contract,” suggest School Committee Vice Chair Stephen Nelson. “It is a tough pill to swallow, but the risk is too great in going back out to bid.”
The committee obviously doesn’t prefer to pay 78 percent of a contract where no bus services are being provided, but the members also recognize they could get the town involved in litigation and end up paying more for a new transportation services contract by going back out to bid.
The general sentiment from the committee is they want to avoid any potential lawsuits and increased money figures for bus contracts. In conclusion, the committee requested Dr. Conti to come back to them with a formal recommendation at their next meeting on May 28.