The state’s Inspector General’s Office has put Boston Public Schools on notice that it might be running the risk of violating the state’s bidding law if it gives its current school bus operator a new five-year contract, according to an initial inquiry by the agency.
It’s not clear whether Inspector General Jeffrey S. Shapiro is formally investigating how Transdev emerged as the only bidder for the contract last fall, or whether BPS violated the bidding law. The law is intended to stimulate competition among private contractors to keep costs down, provide residents with the best possible service, and add transparency to the bidding process.
Transdev has been operating the bus fleet since 2013, and has had perennial problems delivering students to school on time. Potential issues with the bidding process surfaced in December after the Boston Finance Commission urged BPS to delay awarding the contract and to seek advice from the inspector general to determine whether the bid was written in such a way as to exclude competition, especially since its current operator was the sole bidder.
In a letter he sent to School Committee chair Jeri Robinson in December, Shapiro wrote his office “is aware of publicly reported concerns with the current school bus operator’s performance under the existing contract and is aware of publicly reported concerns with the current school bus procurement.”
“The [Boston School Committee] and Boston Public Schools should understand that awarding such a contract at this time requires them to proceed at their own risk,” Shapiro wrote. He also cautioned that state law prohibits public agencies from paying vendors under invalid contracts.
The warning could throw a last-minute wrench into finalizing a new contract for Transdev and also raises questions about whether BPS will need to rebid the contract. The Boston Globe requested a copy of the letter on Jan. 3 and finally obtained it Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the School Committee’s timeline to approve the contract has been delayed. The committee was expected to vote on it last month, but Superintendent Mary Skipper has not yet presented the committee with a recommendation.
The contract dispute comes as BPS is under state pressure to improve the punctuality of its school buses. The state is demanding BPS get at least 95 percent of its buses to school on time each month, a benchmark BPS has yet to meet.
Jack Meyers, a spokesman for the inspector general, declined to comment on specifics.
“The inspector general and the Boston Public Schools share the goal of having an effective transportation contract that gets students to school safely and on time,” he said.
BPS indicated in a statement it’s planning to stick with Transdev.
“BPS transportation staff continue to work to finalize a contract for school buses for the coming fiscal year,” said Max Baker, a school spokesman, adding BPS is receiving guidance from the inspector general on next steps and “have identified opportunities to clarify and improve contract administration.”
He also said BPS is working with Transdev to incorporate those changes into the contract and plan to present it to the School Committee on March 1.
In making its bid, Transdev estimated the first year of its proposal would cost $17.5 million in management fees, wages, and other costs.
Initially, there was strong interest among transportation companies when BPS first began the bidding process in September. More than 30 interested parties participated in a prebid conference call, but only four ended up giving the contract serious consideration. One of them asked BPS to lower the required experience levels, but BPS refused, according to the finance commission.
BPS set a requirement that bidders must have experience running transportation systems for at least three entities that are at least half the size of BPS’s busing fleet, a bar that severely restricted competition, the finance commission said in December. BPS dispatches about 600 buses each day to transport about 22,000 students to more than 220 public and private schools and specialized programs, and also has more than 100 other buses on reserve.
Matthew Cahill, the finance commission’s executive director, said Tuesday the inspector general’s letter validated his agency’s concerns.
“I feel as if they reiterated what we said in our letter, and BPS has a lot of explaining to do,” he said.