Vineyard School Officials Fail to Secure Bus Company Contract Due to Bid Error

By RACHEL KOVAC

With one week to go before the start of a new fiscal year, Island school officials are still uncertain who will transport students to school next fall. Interim Vineyard schools superintendent G. Paul Dulac announced Monday that transportation bids opened last week had to be rejected due to an error in the bidding process. Only two companies submitted bids - MV Coachlines, which operated the buses this past year, and Island Transport Inc., which abruptly severed its contract with the schools in 2004.

Mr. Dulac made the announcement at the Up-Island School Committee meeting in West Tisbury on Monday.

In March school committee members agreed to seek a one-year transportation contract. After several months of writing, rewriting and careful scrutiny by lawyers, a request for proposals (RFP) was issued for bids from outside vendors and contractors. Responses were due June 17.

Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, was told Monday at 5 p.m. by the office of the state inspector general that transportation bids can only be offered to contractors as an invitation to bid, not an RFP.

Under an invitation to bid the decision can only be made by a yes or no vote, and state law requires the schools to accept the lowest suitable bid. An RFP allows each section of the proposal to be judged individually to determine which bid to accept.

Mr. Dulac said the problem should not pose a major setback. "I do not think we will have a problem with time," he said.

Several up-Island school committee members expressed concern about the bidding process and the fact that school attorneys did not understand the distinction between an invitation to bid and an RFP. "Are we going to incur any damages?" asked school committee member Diane Wall. "Are we in any danger of not having buses to transport children?"

Mr. Dulac reassured committee members. "It isn't like we're starting from scratch. I do not think this is going to take anywhere as long," he said.

School transportation has been an ongoing trouble spot for the past several years. More than 1,500 public school students rely on the buses for a ride to and from school. Just weeks before the 2004-2005 school year opened, longtime Vineyard school bus operator Island Transport exited its contract, leaving school officials in a scramble. Island Transport president James Dario wrote a letter to school committee members at the time, blaming the leadership for allegedly breaching contract terms. The company claimed it wanted more autonomy to discipline drivers and the authority to set school days. Island Transport also accused school leadership of practices that created safety concerns.

At the time relations with Island Transport were already been strained. Last year the company threatened to strand students at the end of a school day in June unless the schools agreed to pay the company roughly $100,000 in unpaid bills that school bookkeepers had questioned.

Last summer, the Darios accused school administrators of destroying the relationship. Former Vineyard schools superintendent Kriner Cash called the bus company's actions "unprofessional and irresponsible."

Shortly after the decision to exit the contract, the Darios turned around and said the company wanted to honor the contract. School officials were skeptical and Mr. Cash entered into talks with the Vineyard Transit Authority. In the end the school system signed a 90-day contract with VTA for bus maintenance and safety checks and hired MV Coachlines of Winter Springs, Fla., to handle the labor force.

The Vineyard schools own the buses and have traditionally leased them to Island Transport. The deal during the last four years set a fee of $365,000 a year paid to the schools, which then contracted with Island Transport for just over $1 million a year to operate the bus system and cover the payroll for drivers. The cost of insurance, fuel and maintenance was shared.