Penn Hills school board ratifies transportation contracts

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In the face of criticism from the audience, the Penn Hills school board on Monday ratified contracts with five transportation companies to provide additional bus and taxi services for the remainder of the school year.

In February, the school district signed contracts with bus companies W.L. Roenigk Inc. of Sarver, A.J. Myers and Sons Inc. of Export and Student Transportation of America of Wall, N.J., and taxi service companies BME Transit of Penn Hills and p.r.n. Transit Service Inc. of East Pittsburgh. The school district will pay $263 to $275 per bus per day and $44 to $55 per hour for taxi services.

Student transportation in the district, which has been provided by First Student Inc., has been a problem this school year, with children being left at school or buses failing to arrive. The district has begun the process of terminating its contract with First Student, district solicitor Craig Alexander said.

Two former school board members, Erin Vecchio and Carolyn Faggioli, questioned the board's ratification of the contracts Monday.

“On Feb. 10, the contract with Myers was signed before the board approved it. This is a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Ms. Vecchio said. 

“The public needs to hear that we are paying $275 per day plus half the fuel costs for Myers, $263 and 100 percent the fuel costs for Roenigk, and [Student Transportation of America] wants an operations manager and a facility in Penn Hills,” Ms. Faggioli said. “I also think this violates the Sunshine Law. What is the estimated cost of these contracts?” 

Superintendent Thomas Washington explained that additional transportation was desperately needed and that is why contracts were executed without approval from the school board. “We were having a crisis. I’m not blaming anyone, but we had an issue that had to be dealt with. Too many kids were not getting to school on time and not being picked up. We had to do something in the best interest of the kids. So we solved the problem. I apologize,” he said.

Mr. Alexander said the issue of a school board ratifying contracts after entering into them has been settled legally. “There are times when a board is allowed to take action and ratify contracts at a later date,” he said. 

Other residents asked if the district was leasing the former bus garage building to one of the companies, what the cost per student will be, what the total cost of the contracts are and how much money the district will receive from First Student in the way of reimbursement.

“As I look over this, I have some of the same concerns as our audience,” said school Director Heather Hoolahan, who, along with board member Pauline Calabrese, voted against ratifying the contracts. 

“We will deduct what we pay on these contracts from what we owe to First Student,” Mr. Alexander said. ”We will deduct 100 percent of our out-of-pocket expenses. Anytime a contractor can’t fulfill the contract and the new contractor’s fees are higher, the old contractor is obligated to pay.” A representative from First Student couldn't be reached for comment.

The school board last month voted to seek proposals from other transportation companies for the 2014-15 school year. The bids have been received and opened but a decision has not yet been made.

Tim Means, freelance writer:

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