Published in the February 4, 2016 edition


NORTH READING — The School Committee voted unanimously to award the school system’s bus transportation contract to North Reading Transportation last week but a potential bus fee hike might be on the horizon.

Finance Director Michael Connelly said the district’s current three–year contract with North Suburban Transportation expires June 30. He said the school department advertised for bids on transportation services recently and North Reading Transportation and North Suburban Transportation submitted bids. He said the two bids were higher than what school officials hoped.

“Unfortunately, several factors have resulted in a significant increase in the market daily rate for school bus transportation resulting in a significant increase in our daily price from $284 per bus to a low bid of $323 per bus,” said Connelly. “This increase will result in a significant fiscal year 2017 budget impact of $88,495.”

Connelly noted the $323 bid North Reading Transportation submitted is “consistent with other communities’ rates that have gone out to bid the last two years.” He noted the average bus transportation rate in the area is $335.

The finance director attributed the bus rate increase to the Affordable Health Care Act, the state’s new sick time law, prevailing wage rates due to a shortage of school bus drivers and the need for new equipment to meet safety requirements and regulations.

While Connelly said the regular bus transportation bids were higher than what school officials wanted, the finance director noted, “The pricing for athletic and extra curricular transportation will yield an estimated savings of $10,000 annually.

“This is the result of how the bid pricing for athletic transportation was structured,” Connelly explained. “The bid requested a flat hourly rate at a three hour minimum per run for athletic transportation as opposed to a rate per mile and a per hour rate for waiting time for each run. This yielded favorable pricing for athletic transportation resulting in an estimated savings in this area.”

In response to a question from School Committee Vice Chairman Mel Webster, Connelly said the higher bus transportation bid is going to be a “challenge” during the FY’17 budget process.

School Committee member Jerry Venezia inquired what the bid’s impact will be on the school system’s bus fees. The district’s current individual bus fee is $300 and the family cap is $500.

Connelly noted the school district is required to bus students in grades K–6 who live more than two miles from school. The school system has bus fees for students who live outside of the state’s busing requirements as well as students in grades 7–12 who choose to ride the bus to and from school.

Webster commented, “I am assuming our current bus fee will not cover this additional $88,495?”

“That is correct,” said Connelly.

Connelly gave the school board two options to consider before committee members voted to award the busing contract to North Reading Transportation. He said the committee could award the low bid to North Reading Transportation or school officials could readvertise the bid with the hope the prices will come in lower.

“I have considered both options and feel that it would be advantageous to accept North Reading Transportation’s low bid at this time,” said Connelly. “Rebidding will most likely not result in a favorable pricing, given current market conditions. After analyzing the results of the bid and checking references, I recommend awarding the school bus transportation contract to North Reading Transportation.”

School Committee Julie Koepke inquired if the district has had any complaints against North Suburban Transportation. Connelly said school officials have received some complaints and school officials worked to address those issues.

Webster said he has received a number of complaints about busing this year.

Next steps

School officials will begin discussing potential bus fee increases once the school budget is unveiled.

Webster said he “can’t see any way of paying” for the new bus contract without increasing fees.

“I think we tend to agree,” said Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard.

After the bids came in, Bernard asked Connelly to begin crafting a tiered chart of potential bus fee increases.