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East Providence school busing costs could rise dramatically

District receives only one bid for transportation services next term

By Mike Rego
Posted 6/11/20

EAST PROVIDENCE — “Quite the pickle…Stuck between a rock and a hard place,” those were some of the words used to describe the district’s busing situation as it begins …

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East Providence school busing costs could rise dramatically

District receives only one bid for transportation services next term

Posted

EAST PROVIDENCE — “Quite the pickle…Stuck between a rock and a hard place,” those were some of the words used recently to describe the district’s busing situation as it begins negotiating a new contract for the upcoming 2020-21 term.

The district’s transportation costs could rise by as much as 17 percent year-over-year if the sole bid submitted during the most recent Request For Proposal sequence is ultimately approved, Superintendent Kathryn Crowley and Director of Operations Diana Clarkin told the School Committee at its meeting Tuesday night, June 9.

The superintendent said only one vendor, existing provider STA/Ocean State Transit, followed through to the end of the process. Five initially submitted proposals, but, she said, “They gradually they fell away…for a couple of reasons they couldn’t support it.”

Those actions left the district in the quandary of just being able to consider one bidder, STA/Ocean State Transit, which earlier this calendar year reneged on an extension agreed upon last summer between the sides. STA bought Ocean State Transit during the intermittent period, and backed away from the pact, which would have added the ’20-21 term to an existing agreement between the parties under substantially better terms for the district.

The committee’s vote of approval of the STA/Ocean State Transit bid last week only allows the administration and its legal counsel to enter into negotiations on a new agreement. The board will have final say on whether it’s signed following discussions and consultations in the coming weeks.

The 17 percent increase over last year’s numbers, the administrators said, was similar to those incurred by other districts across the state, who are seeing 12-15-17 percent increase in costs.

“We thought more than one bid would be submitted and unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Director Clarkin said, adding, “I’m disappointed in the percentage increase, but that’s a personal interjection.”

She continued, the proposed increase “is in line with other districts, but we’re probably on the high side…maybe a little bit higher.”

Superintendent Crowley said the bid proposal calls for the district to pay a certain percentage, up to 90 percent of typical costs, to STA/Ocean State Transit if schools are forced to close once again this coming winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other reasons, deemed in the RFP as “Act of God…or any other disruption.” The company’s initial submission also included 3.5, 3.5 and 3 percent increases in the out years of the contract.

“They have overhead and they want us to be responsible for that in the new contract,” Superintendent Crowley said, referring to a deal STA/Ocean State Transit recently negotiated with its unions, including those who represent bus aides. That agreement added a roughly $200,000 increase in compensation to aides.

“At this point there’s not much we can do. We need to get something concrete and we need to do it relatively quickly,” said Superintendent Crowley.

Before the committee backed the RFP, which it eventually did unanimously with the caveat so-called “Act of God…or any other disruption” language be removed from the bid, members expressed concerns with the proposal and a desire to have the final agreement provide the district with some indemnities to help keep expenditures as low as possible.

“If we’re going to absorb that kind of cost I want to make sure we have some protections in that contract,” said At-Large member Joel Monteiro, who cited provisions like promptness of student arrival at buildings as one of the parameters the district needed to include in the final deal.

Director Clarkin spoke about the re-opening plan for schools currently being considered at the state level, which will have ramifications for all districts. The next day, June 10, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced the broad intention of all schools across the state re-opening for in-person classes on August 31.

One specific plan being considered by the state would be only allowing elementary age students actually back in buildings in the fall. Middle and high school students would continue to distance learn virtually. And following current COVID-19 healthcare guidelines, the number of pupils allowed on each bus would be substantially reduced.

In East Providence, Director Clarkin said there are approximately 1,300 elementary students and of those who require transportation under the proposed re-opening standards it would take between 75-100 buses to get them to and from schools.

Of the restrictions on the number of students allowed on each bus and the associated costs, Director Clarkin said, “It’s astronomical if we don’t stagger times or if we can’t put more than 14 students on a bus…It’s ridiculous.”

Ward 4 member Jessica Beauchaine, while not supporting the notion, asked if the district could charge for use of buses by students like many others do throughout the area.

Superintendent Crowley responded by noting it’s not something being considered at the moment, but the task force she recently appointed to oversee the re-opening plan for East Providence is likely to contemplate any and all possible solutions.

“I think we may get to some of those stages with the task force on transportation because we have to look not only at the contract, but if have to put kids in every other seat, it’s not doable. I wouldn’t even be able to open up school if we had to seat them that way. I’m being very honest,” the superintendent said.

Ward 2 member Tony Ferreira asked if it was feasible and legal to increase the distance used to determine which students walk to schools. Director Clarkin said the only Rhode Island Department of Education specifications for transportation are for Special Education students and it is up to each district to determine the busing routes and eligibility for most bus riders.

“This could just not be a doable number,” Mr. Ferreira said of the transportation costs, noting if a change is made to the walking distance and another suggestion of his of reducing fees associated with athletics travel, it could decrease the overall amount needed to pay for buses.

The superintendent concluded of the situation as a whole, “They (STA/Ocean State Transit) have us over a barrel…It is what it is.”

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