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State inspector general instructs Boston schools to crack down on late buses

Buses at the Transdev headquarters on Freeport Way in Dorchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts inspector general’s office implored Boston school officials on Tuesday to hold its troubled busing contractor, Transdev, accountable for late school buses, following a two-month inquiry into how the company emerged as the only bidder for a new five-year contract.

“The office remains extremely concerned about Transdev’s failure to consistently deliver students to school on time in the past and questions whether Transdev will be able to do so in the future,” Inspector General Jeffrey S. Shapiro wrote in a letter.

Shapiro did not identify faults with the bidding process in his letter, but outlined steps BPS should take to tighten oversight of Transdev and ensure the contract’s language fully reflected all aspects of the bid — without any last-minute modifications by Transdev.

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Under state law, contracts awarded in violation of bidding rules are considered invalid and need to be rebid. Such a determination could have created massive disruptions for BPS and its transportation program. Transdev’s contract expires on June 30, leaving only four months to launch a new public bidding process and little time for a new contractor to take over a system that buses about 22,000 students to about 225 public and private schools each day.

In an interview, Shapiro said he took the calendar into consideration in determining the best way to ensure improved transportation services for Boston students.

“I believe that the city of Boston and the Boston Public Schools and this office have a shared goal, and that goal is to get students to school safely and timely and to have Boston know what it is purchasing and how it will be managed and monitored, and to ensure that public dollars are spent for their intended purposes,” he said.

The inspector general’s review represents the latest inquiry into Boston’s transportation woes and adds to the pressure the district faces to get its chronically tardy buses to run on time.

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On Friday, a separate investigation by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education concluded late and no-show buses were preventing students with disabilities from receiving thespecial education services to which they are legally entitled and ordered BPS to remedy the problems. An audit by Ernst and Young, also released on Friday by the state, faulted BPS for omitting scores of buses from its on-time performance calculations because of faulty data collection.

The troubled bus performance is continuing this year even though BPS was supposed to make substantial progress toward fixing its more than decade-long problem with late buses. Since the start of this school year, the district has been operating with an edict under a state-ordered district improvement plan to get at least 95 percent of its buses to run on time each month — a bar BPS has yet to meet.

Max Baker, a Boston schools spokesman, said BPS appreciated the opportunity to work with the inspector general to finalize the contract and to review the bidding process.

“The IGO’s recommendations for contract administration will facilitate better outcomes for our students, especially given the complexity of the district’s transportation needs,” Baker said in a statement. “In line with the IGO’s recommendation, BPS has already completed the majority of the work necessary to prepare a fully integrated contract. We look forward to our continued work with Transdev and partners across the city and state to keep improving our transportation systems for our young people. BPS is committed to a continuous effort to provide safe, reliable, and on-time transportation for our students.”

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The fate of BPS’s new contract with Transdev, which hasn’t been approved by the School Committee, had been murky for months, even though BPS officials were intent on pushing forward. The Boston Finance Commission raised concerns in December that BPS may have written the bid in such a way to exclude competition, and the inspector general warned BPS shortly afterwards that if it moved forward with the contract it would be doing so at its own risk.

In concluding his review, Shapiro raised concerns about the lack of accurate data to calculate the on-time performance of the buses, much of it due to malfunctioning GPS devices on buses. He is urging BPS to remove buses from the roads if the GPS devices can’t be fixed within a day. BPS has about 100 buses on reserve.

Shapiro also recommended BPS create a contract administration plan to guarantee proper oversight of Transdev, including having real-time access to data to monitor and evaluate Transdev’s performance, especially in making payments to the contractor and weighing any penalties for poor performance or bonuses when buses hit on-time benchmarks.

Although the five-year contract includes several options for one-year renewals, Shapiro said BPS should decide in year three of the contract if it wants to stick with Transdev or explore other options, including running the entire transportation operation itself. Transdev hires the drivers and manages the fleet of buses, which BPS owns. BPS also creates the bus routes.

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In making its bid, Transdev estimated the first year of its proposal would cost $17.5 million in management fees, wages, and other costs.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.