Baltimore company wins school bus contract
ROCK HALL — Kent County students may find themselves greeting new bus drivers this fall — or still saying hello to the friendly face behind the wheel they have known for years.
On Friday, the Kent County Board of Education awarded the school bus contract to Reliable Transportation of Baltimore. The move came after board members — minus Jeff Reed, who was absent — tossed out a bid protest lodged by the consortium of local contractors currently providing student transportation.
Reliable, currently serving public schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, was the low bidder. Reliable stated in its bid that the company wants to hire local drivers and establish a bus depot in or near Kent County.
“I support the decision that was made. It was a dif
ficult one to make. But, at the end of the day, we had to do what was fiscally responsible and yet keeping in mind what’s best for our stu- dents,” said Superintendent Karen Couch of the board’s decision.
Board members were joined at Friday’s special meeting, held at 11 a.m. in the district’s central office in Rock Hall, by their attorney Edmund J. O’Meally. Also present were attorneys Da
vid Sheehan, representing the Kent County Bus Contractors LLC, and Timothy M. Dixon and Scott A. Liv
ingston for Reliable. Members of the Kent County con- tractors group were in the audience, as well as district staff and interested parents.
Facing a budget shortfall going into the next fiscal year, the school board put the student transportation contract out to bid in hopes of saving money. Reliable and the Kent County contractors, who have provided bus service for the district since 1997, were the only two bidders.
Reliable bid $1.49 million for the first year, with a 2 percent increase over the next three years ending at about $1.58 million. The Kent County contractors bid about $1.8 million a year. The district spent $1.59 million in the previous fiscal year on school buses, not counting athletics, field trips, summer school and other additional student transportation needs.
“I think the board got it right. I think they did their due diligence and, quite frankly, I think it’s the right decision. We were the low
est responsive bidder. And we’re looking for a great partnership with Kent County Public Schools, the community and local employees,” said Dixon, who is Reliable’s chief operating and legal officer, after Friday’s vote.
The Kent County contractors filed a protest four days after the bids were opened Feb. 6. They stated that Reliable was neither a responsive, nor a responsible bidder. Sheehan was given the opportunity to make his case before the board Friday.
Much of Sheehan’s argument focused on the lack of particulars in Reliable’s bid. He said the company did not include a list of buses that would be used in Kent County. He said it failed to name any drivers who would take on the routes.
“Have they filed a responsive bid when they haven’t told you a single specific, not one?” Sheehan asked. “Is that what you want to risk?”
Sheehan said the board needed to make an “independent decision” on whether the bid protest had merit. He said if the Kent County contractors did not win, the school board will be putting a lot of local people out of work.
“The question is them (Reliable), not us. You know us. We’ve been in this community forever,” Sheehan said.
Dixon reiterated Reliable’s desire to hire local drivers, saying the company pays between $18.50 and a little over $20 an hour with ben- efits. He questioned why the company would purchase additional buses or hire new drivers before knowing it won the contract.
“Reliable submitted experience letters. Reliable submitted financials. Reliable submitted more than the RFP (request for proposals) required,” Dixon said.
Sheehan said a previous criminal conviction for welfare fraud against Reliable’s owner should deem the company non-responsive.
Dixon said members of the Kent County contractors group have past legal troubles, bankruptcy filings and tax issues, but that does not mean the consortium is a non-responsive bidder.
Much of the arguments focused on the district’s requirement of a performance bond, which is usually issued by a surety or insurance company after evaluation of an operation’s ability to meet contractual obligations.
Reliable submitted a consent of surety letter from Hanover Insurance, stating a performance bond would be issued should Reliable be awarded the contract. The Kent County contractors reportedly had difficulty obtaining such a letter for the umbrella group and promised, instead, to submit individual performance guarantees within 10 days of being awarded the contract.
“Mr. Sheehan talks about risk, what he doesn’t mention is the LLC gave no surety,” Dixon said of the contractors group.
Sheehan said the school board had several options. He said the board members could accept the protest and toss out Reliable’s bid, but that would leave them with one bidder at a price they cannot afford. He said Reliable also might take them to court. He said they also could risk court action by the Kent County contractors if they turn down the bid protest and select Reliable.
Sheehan’s third alternative was to reject all bids. He said the Kent County contractors would agree to the terms of their current contract for another five or six years with a 2 percent annual increase.
“That’s an option for you. I recommend you follow that course of action because it preserves jobs in this county. It preserves what you have,” Sheehan told the board. Dixon said Sheehan sug
gested the school board violate the law by rejecting both bids and directly negotiating with the Kent County contractors.
“You’ve had two bidders. One won. One lost,” Dixon said.
Following the arguments, the board members and Couch entered into executive session to consult with O’Meally. The closed-door discussion lasted more than an hour.
When they returned, board members cast three unanimous votes: to reject the Kent County contractors’ bid protest, to award the student transportation contract to reliable and issue a new RFP for additional transpor- tation needs including athletics, field trips and summer school. Those bus trips cost the district $82,000 last year.
That last vote was due to Reliable not having bid on the additional transportation and the Kent County contractors offering to take them only if they also received the main contract, which they did not.
For board members Bryan Williams and Joe Goetz, the decision came down to cost. Williams said the difference between Reliable’s bid and the Kent County contractors’ over four years came out to a little more than $1.06 million.
“I certainly appreciate all that the LLC has done for us,” said Goetz, who has children in school. “But at the end of the day we’re charged to look at everything in the school system, from top to bottom.”
In a statement emailed after Friday’s meeting, the Kent County contractors said they disagree with the board’s decision, but have no intention of pursuing litigation. They ensured the community that they will continue to fulfill their contract until June 30, when Reliable’s contract begins.
“We wish Reliable Transportation well, and hope they will continue to provide safe and reliable transportation to our most ‘precious cargo’ as the Kent County Bus Contractors, LLC and their drivers have done for many many years. Finally, the Kent County Bus Contractors, LLC want to thank the par
ents/ grandparents and the citizens of Kent County for their support during this bidding process,” the group said in a statement.
Attorney David Sheehan, left, represents the Kent County Bus Contractors LLC Friday at a special meeting of the Kent County Board of Education. Also pictured are Timothy M. Dixon and Scott A. Livingstone, attorneys for Reliable Transportation.
Timothy M. Dixon, chief operating and legal officer for Reliable Transportation of Baltimore, discusses with the Kent County Board of Education his company’s bid for the student transportation contract at a special meeting Friday in Rock Hall.