A controversial 2009 bus contract between a private company and violated at least one state law, according to a letter sent to Superintendent Pia Durkin earlier this month by Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan.
The letter focuses on contractor H&L Bloom Inc.'s use of parking lot to garage the buses and the company's use of school office space. Bloom was allowed these uses under a $1-per-year "license agreement" that was finalized after the three-year, $5.4 million contract was awarded, according to Sullivan's letter.
"The school district's post-contract award decision to allow Bloom to use high school property for $1 per year contributed to the appearance of a prejudicial bidding process that favored one specific vendor," Sullivan wrote.
The school district's request for proposals document for the bus contract stated the buses needed to be garaged "within city limits," but this feature was waived orally by then school district Business Manager during a pre-bid conference, according to Sullivan's letter.
Failure to inform other potential bidders that that the garaging feature could be waived, Sullivan wrote, violated a state law requiring all contractual terms and conditions be included in RFP documents.
"Had it been clear to the other bidders than an option existed at virtually no cost to use school property (including office space) then the school district might have received substantially lower bids," Sullivan wrote.
The inspector general wrote that the district may have also violated the law by calling the document allowing Bloom's use of the school property a "license agreement" rather than a "lease." A lease requires a competitive bidding process.
"Calling an agreement a 'license' does not excuse it from the requirements of [the state law] if it is truly a lease," Sullivan wrote.
He added, "Even if truly a license and not a lease, the use of school property as office space should have been clearly defined in contract specifications, and made an option for all bidders along with any use requirements."
The contract expires this year. Sullivan wrote that his letter should be used "to assist the school district to generate a transparent and fair school bus service bidding process for the upcoming school year."
Some city and district officials have been vocal about their opposition to the current contract. School Committee member Teri Enegren is one of the loudest critics.
"It's embarrassing that there were so many side agreements … but because of the way things were done, we have to live with this [letter from Sullivan]," she said at Monday's committee meeting. "This is a blemish."
Also at the meeting, a story came to light from earlier this month regarding a female kindergarten student who had mistakenly boarded a bus heading to her home when she was supposed to go to an after-school program. Her parents were not at home and the bus driver left the girl with a neighbor, as instructed to do by a company supervisor.
"That is inappropriate," Enegren said. "We have a central office that is open late in the day [where the student could have been sent] … whatever protocol was followed, this [supervisor], who in my opinion could be the nicest person in the world, does not belong in this position."
Enegren said the supervisor did not have the credentials required for the job by the contract. She said she had received several phone calls about the incident from concerned parents.
Superintendent Durkin called the situation "an extremely unfortunate incident."
Durkin said her office could not discipline the bus driver and company supervisor because they are not district employees, but "this involved a number of people on the school side. I am responsible for that because the employees are under my supervision."
She would not go into further detail about the involvement of school district employees because she said she could not discuss a personnel matter in public.