School board delays vote on bus contract.

As an investigation continued into the city schools' bus services, a proposed transportation contract was scuttled by the city schools board at its most recent meeting.

With a group from Laidlaw Transit, the system's bus-services provider, in the audience, school superintendent Johnnie B. Watson withdrew the proposed contract from the table after concerns were raised by the board. Commissioner Wanda Halbert, for one, was worried that the transportation services had not used a fair bidding process.

In February, amid allegations of collusion, Watson asked internal auditor Waldon Gooch to investigate the transportation division's activities from April 3, 2000, to February 15, 2002, mostly as they related to Laidlaw. Watson asked that any information uncovered that appeared to be unlawful be forwarded directly to the attorney general. Any other information was to be presented to the board.

Last week, Gooch told the Flyer that his investigation was ongoing and his report would not be ready for a few weeks.

After Watson told the board he could not get them a completed investigation by the next board meeting on May 6th, the commissioners asked for a preliminary report before they voted on the contract.

"Let's be realistic," said board president Michael Hooks Jr. "There is already a public perception of the issue. Isn't it best to get some type of feedback on the validity of the charges before moving forward? It's been over a month. Somebody has to know something."

The proposed negotiated contract with Laidlaw would be for two years, with the opportunity to renew the contract for three one-year terms. The agreement eliminated any shared-savings clause and included an incentive/penalty program based on the transportation company's performance. The current contract, dated July 1997, expires June of this year.

The school district never sent out a request for proposal (RFP) asking other companies to bid for the services. Instead, an interdepartmental memo from the transportation office dated January 2001 said the decision had been made to renegotiate with Laidlaw versus putting out an RFP. It did not say who made that decision or when it was made.

At Monday night's meeting, Halbert brought up a policy which would seem to make an RFP necessary, only to be told that transportation services fell under the term "professional services" and thereby did not have to be bid out. The commissioner also proposed a motion to extend the current contract for one year instead of signing an entirely new contract. Instead, Watson pulled the item for review.

"This superintendent did not like the former contract with Laidlaw," said Watson. "In his opinion, it was not a good contract."

Before Watson took the contract off the table, Commissioner Hubon Sandridge wanted to go ahead and approve the proposal without the results of the investigation.

"I've been around a long time," said Sandridge. "I know we're going to have [Laidlaw] do it. I don't know why we're going through all this."

Commissioners asked that when the new contract comes before them it be accompanied by a copy of the actual contract, an explanation of professional services, and an update into the investigation.

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