Boston school officials are poised to approve a new five-year contract with their existing busing contractor Transdev, despite longtime performance problems and warnings from multiple watchdogs about a process that produced just one bid.
But under the new contract, the company would be forced to pay steep financial penalties if too many buses are late or don’t show up at all. Transdev has failed to meet benchmarks for on-time service for years, frustrating parents and leading to a civil rights complaint against BPS for failing to provide children with disabilities reliable transportation to school.
The bus contract has “been entirely restructured,” Superintendent Mary Skipper told the School Committee Wednesday evening. “It focuses really on vendor accountability, and it’s tied to financial incentives that are based on outcomes for students.”
The district’s past contracts with Transdev extended the company carrots for improved service — the company could earn up to $1 million in bonuses a year — but Transdev left all the incentive money on the table each year and simply collected the fixed management fee. Past contracts also included sticks — fines for various failures — but those counted only against the performance incentives, so Transdev never had to pay them.
This time, the bus contract has no floor: The company could make nothing at all if performance is bad enough. The idea, officials said, is to give the company more upside, but also real accountability for failures.
The $17.5-million-per-year contract also shifts costs like utilities, maintenance, and snow removal from the district to Transdev.
District officials projected confidence, but School Committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez worried that a new contract structure may not be enough to fix the transportation woes.
“What if it doesn’t work?” Cardet-Hernandez asked. “I’m a parent whose kid gets busing, and I don’t trust the system enough to use it. It’s not reliable enough for us as working parents.”
School Committee member Rafaela Polanco Garcia wanted to know why three other companies who considered bidding ended up withdrawing from the process. Transportation Director Dan Rosengard said the other potential bidders were turned off by the “vendor accountability” the district sought.
The new bus contract comes at a critical time for BPS, with the district under state pressure to make substantial progress on late buses. Since the start of this school year, the district has been operating under a state edict to get at least 95 percent of its buses to run on time each month — a bar BPS has yet to meet.
BPS reported on-time arrival rates of 83.6 and 85.7 percent in January and February, according to the state’s preferred metric that counts as late the 5 to 8 percent of buses with missing GPS data. An Ernst and Young audit released by the state last month faulted the district for previously omitting those buses from its calculations.
Because late and no-show buses have been such a serious and frustrating problem, the new Transdev contract came under intense scrutiny, with the state Inspector General at one point saying that the district risked running afoul of state bidding law. Boston’s own watchdog agency questioned in December whether the district wrote its bid in a way that excluded competition.
But in a letter released late last month following a two-month inquiry, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro did not identify faults with the bidding process. Instead, he called on the district to tighten oversight of Transdev — clearing the way for the contract to advance to a vote March 22.
Shapiro’s office said in a statement Thursday that the office is “pleased that the Boston Public Schools is committed to strengthening the management of its school bus contract by following our recommendations” but warned that “BPS must provide strong and consistent oversight to hold Transdev accountable for safe and on time performance.”
Cardet-Hernandez wondered whether the contract would serve BPS well throughout its five-year span, given the changes the district is planning to make in the next few years, including in the Green New Deal for BPS building overhaul.
“I suspect we will need significantly less routes once we move through this process of mergers and consolidations,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “It’s so hard to be making what feels like big, long-term decisions when there’s so much unknown in the air.”
Bus routes could also be affected by plans to move away from separate special education classrooms and begin mainstreaming most kids with disabilities. A proposal to standardize school start times could also change bus plans.
Still, the committee seemed ready to approve the contract at the next meeting. Transdev’s contract expires on June 30, which would leave very little time to replace a contractor that buses around 22,000 students to about 225 public and private schools each day.
The administration also presented a revised budget for next school year Wednesday, with a $7 million increase attributed to increased costs in new collective bargaining agreements. The revised budget will go to a vote March 22, alongside the bus contract and a proposal to seek state funding for a new Shaw-Taylor school building.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.