Bus Contract Dispute Flares
At an emergency joint meeting early yesterday, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) and the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committees narrowly averted a paralyzing contract impasse with Island Transport Inc. that would have left hundreds of students across the Island without bus transportation for the remainder of the academic year.
The dispute, which appears to have surfaced only recently, arises from the terms of a three-year-old unwritten modification to the contract between the regional school district and privately owned bus company.
Vineyard school superintendent Kriner Cash told committee members yesterday that the schools had agreed to an annual contract increase of $100,000 to cover transportation costs for special education (SPED) students. Before the deal was made three years ago, the school had provided that transportation itself.
"SPED transportation has been done by the school district. However, Island Transport will now be doing the SPED transportation for us, [and] an additional $100,000 will be added to the contract for those two runs each year for the next (five) years," according to minutes of an Aug. 16, 2000, meeting of the MVRHS and UIRSD.
As a result of what Mr. Cash now says was a three-year overpayment, he proposed recently that the school district withhold a June payment of $112,000.
Island Transport demanded the overdue payment and threatened to terminate bus services immediately. Vice president Scott Dario said the company needs the money and cannot afford to operate without it.
"We're not doing it on principle," Mr. Dario told school committee members. "We can't afford it."
Since the contract was modified three years ago, Mr. Dario said, the school system has made 29 payments without protest. Then, without notice, he said he found out only Monday that the 30th payment would be withheld. Island Transport provides transportation services to the schools using buses owned by the school system and leased to the private operator.
Island Transport attorney Robert Parks argued to the school committees that the increase was to cover additional operating costs and had nothing to do with SPED transportation.
Mr. Cash said he would not have agreed to an automatic increase in Island Transport charges without some additional benefit to the school.
Mr. Parks said that under Massachusetts law, Island Transport could increase a public contract up to 25 percent to cover expenses without repeating the bidding process. Mr. Parks also argued that the many payments the school has made already would be interpreted to mean that there had been "a meeting of the minds" as far as the legality of the oral modification was concerned. He added that Island Transport intended to enforce the contract if the matter is not settled.