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October 20, 2005

Eyewitness Report: School Board Decisions on Bus Contracts

A recent editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal claims that the Madison school board rejected Superintendent Art Rainwater's "painstaking" analysis of known problems with local bus companies when it granted long-term contracts to transport our students to locally owned companies. According to the editorial, the administration informed the Board about safety and reliability problems with some of the companies, but---safety and reliability be damned--- the Board rushed ahead. The administration, having taken its stand, then meekly agreed to commit the districts to contracts likely to fail our students and their families.

Time for a fact check. I was there for the administration’s presentation, for the votes on the contracts and for recent Board discussions about the problems that have developed with one of the local companies, Mr. Mom's.

This is my eyewitness report.

The Madison Board of Education rarely rejects the recommendations of Superintendent Rainwater. I recall only two times that we have explicitly rejected his views. One was the vote to authorize Nuestro Mundo Community School as a charter school. The other was when we gave the go-ahead for a new Wexford Ridge Community Center on the campus of Memorial High School.

Here’s how things happen when the superintendent opposes the Board’s proposed action.

Following the usual battle cry (“I would be remiss in my duties if I did not tell you….), the superintendent forcefully states his views. The storm of opposition that follows is at least a Category 5. We endure a tsunami of PowerPoint presentations and waves of legal and educational objections. Memos recommending other decisions fly our way. Our lawyers argue with their lawyers. Supporters of the proposed decision rally at meeting after meeting, trying not to be swept aside by the gale and watching the rough weather.

In contrast, here is what happened in the months preceding the Board’s decision to include two local bus companies---Badger Bus and Mr. Mom’s—in the group of companies that would receive five-year contracts to transport our students.

In December of 2004, our Business Services department under Assistant Superintendent Roger Price, completed a process that “pre-qualified” companies to bid on these contracts. In that process companies provided information that included their failure rate in a recent vehicle inspection by the State Patrol. On the low end, the Riteway Company reported a failure rate of .5%. On the high end, Mr. Mom’s reported a failure rate of 75%. The administration did not provide this information or any other information to the Board of Education that indicated concern about safety or reliability of any company.

Months later, the Board learned that two local companies had not qualified to bid. Both were locally-owned companies. The companies objected to this exclusion. So did some of the local media.

The Board questioned the exclusion of these companies. The administration defended its qualification process. They did not, however, tell us that either company failed our safety or reliability standards. They told us that the companies had not completed certain parts of the paperwork.

Believing that the national companies, which are much larger companies, had qualified to bid because of their larger, more efficient staffs, I concluded that all things were equal in terms of safety and reliability factors. I therefore voted with the majority to require the administration to negotiate contracts with the local companies as well as the national companies.

This month, The Capital Times reported that Mr. Mom’s company had a history of vehicle inspection failures going back to 2002. It also reported on a very recent brake failure on a field trip and on problems such as the drivers leaving a child at the wrong location and leaving a child on the bus by mistake. Accordingly, at our meeting on October 10, I asked the administration what they had known about vehicle inspection problems as the result of the “pre-qualification” process.

The answer from the administration was that they didn’t know. They’d need to investigate. They’d get back to me the next day. Not a word about their “painstaking” analysis or any long-term concerns about problems with Mr. Mom’s services.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery because he draws the correct inferences from something that did not happen. When the hounds should have been howling, they weren’t.

As an eyewitness to the events surrounding the school board’s decisions on transportation contracts, I notice what did not happen in this situation. If the administration knew that one of the companies posed serious risks to our children’s safety and might not be able to provide reliable transportation, where was the storm of opposition? Where were the howls of protest? Why would they tell me that they had “to investigate” in order to know what was known when the Board went forward with the Mr. Mom’s contract?

Posted by Ruth Robarts at October 20, 2005 11:19 AM
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