Highlands to reassess bus contract
After being chastised by the Pennsylvania Auditor General, the Highlands School Board may start putting transportation contracts out for bid.
In a recently released audit report of Highlands, Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale's office found fault with the district's payments to its transportation contractor, William G. Roenigk, over four school years, from 2008-09 through 2011-12.
The matter was not issued as a “finding” — which points out a serious problem — but an “observation” in the report.
It stated that Roenigk was paid “substantially more than the state Education Department's final formula allowance, which is used to determine reimbursement of pupil transportation services.”
According to the report, Highlands paid $916,000 over its reimbursement allowance in 2008-09; about $910,000 over in 2009-10; $851,000 in 2010-11; and about $718,000 in 2011-12.
Susan Woods, spokesman for the auditor general, said Highlands is not alone.
“Yes, we do see it,” she said. “It's not rare, but it's not widespread, either. Usually what they are doing is not bidding.”
That is not illegal, however. School districts are not required by law to bid contracts for services such as transportation. They are free to solicit proposals from contractors and negotiate with them to come up with an acceptable agreement.
That's the case at Highlands, where bus contracts have been negotiated between the district and Roenigk for years. Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalobok said he is aware the district's transportation costs have exceeded the state allowance.
“I know in years past it was an issue that we brought up with Roenigk, and I think it's going to be something we're going to have to look at again,” Bjalobok said. “With the budget constraints that we have, we can't afford to overpay somebody.”
AG: Money could go elsewhere
The Auditor General's report states: “If the district had considered PDE's approved final formula allowance when negotiating the district's transportation contract, the additional funds required from the taxpayers to operate the transportation program may not have been needed and could have been used to provide educational services to the district's students.”
Jon Rupert, Highlands' business manager, bristles at that assessment. He argues that it is not a matter of overpaying as much as it is complying with state regulations and mandates while trying to maximize the transportation reimbursement the district receives.
The Education Department's reimbursement for transportation considers items like bus seating capacity, the bus' age, the number of trips it makes, the number of days pupils were transported, the miles driven daily and the greatest number of pupils transported.
Rupert said school officials look at all that and try to maximize Highlands' state transportation reimbursement.
But Rupert said but that can lead to more costs incurred by the bus contractor, which is then passed on to the district.
For example, noting the reimbursement is higher for newer buses, Rupert said, “In our contract, we say that our buses have to average under 10 years.”
In addition. Rupert said, “You want to load your buses as much as you can and travel as much as you can.”
But Rupert said that runs counter to what parents and school officials want, which is to make daily bus trips as short as possible for students, especially elementary kids.
“I'm paying the same per diem to Roenigk's for the bus, $200 a day; but under the state subsidy I only get so much,” Rupert said. “We have a different geographical area — not like Armstrong (School District) where you are traveling hundreds of miles.”
Then there is the matter of constant spikes in fuel prices, a cost for which Rupert thinks the state formula does not account.
“That's a good question: is the formula actually out of line with the real costs,” Bjalobok said. “When I was at South Side Beaver, that was a comment that we were always out of line with the state formula.”
Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said criticism from the state about transportation costs is something the association has not heard a lot about.“In general, transportation costs will vary greatly across the state with many factors impacting the final costs including differences in gas prices and availability of multiple vendors from which to receive competitive bids,” Robinson said. “For example, transportation costs in Allegheny County tend to be higher in part due to the gas costs, which is typically 20 cents to 30 cents per gallon more than in the Philadelphia area.”
Bjalobok said bidding out the bus contract is something the school board may consider.
“Again, that is something that we can certainly consider, but we will have a dialogue with Roenigk before we do something like that,” he said. “There's a long-term relationship with this company, so we want to sit down and talk to them to see where we are.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.