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Director of School Finance Ingrid Nilsson is in the midst of negotiations with Dee Bus Service of Shirley to reduce the contractual payment obligation on behalf of Westford and about a dozen other nearby communities.
When Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency over COVID-19 in mid-March there were still two-and-one-half months of classroom learning to go before the school year would end in mid June. But with the interference of the pandemic virus, the shool year in Massachusetts was cut short, ending this month. Students would finish out the year using conference software inside their homes to hear their lectures.
For Dee Bus Service that meant dormant buses throughout the region and reduced income from what the multi-year contracts with the communities specified.
Westford owed Dee $836,460.66 for the remaining period of this year’s contract. But because the schools were shuttered, the buses parked, and the students learning at home, Nilsson negotiated a discount of 45 percent, meaning Westford would pay $376,407.30 for the remaining period. As the representative from the largest regional community contracted for Dee’s transportation services, Nilsson is also negotiating for the other towns.
Fiscal 2020 Westford Public Schools – Dee BusTotal regular transportation expense for Fiscal 20 (students to and from school) $ 2,389,887.60
Paid to date (through March 15, 2020) $ 1,553,426.94
Remaining contracted amount $ 836,460.66
Proposed contract amendment of 45 percent of remaining for readiness of services $ 376,407.30
source: Ingrid Nilsson, Director of School Finance
Vote by School Committee
The School Committee voted six to one in favor of Nilsson’s recommendation. It was Mingquan Zheng who cast the dissenting vote on May 18.
“So we are actually $375,000 out,” he said. “If school doesn’t open (in the fall), are we on the hook for any money?”
Superintendent Bill Olsen said he would consult town counsel about re-negotiating a new agreement with Dee.
“We just don’t have enough information right now,” Olsen said.
But Zheng was not satisfied.
“That’s where I get really uncomfortable,” he said, “because next year the contract calls for $2.7 million. We’re setting a precedent here for 45 percent.”
Zheng said it’s important, especially now that the budget is so tight, to preserve cash.
“Any money we give to Dee, I want some money back for future contracts,” he said.
Olsen suggested Zheng view the negotiated payment as an opportunity cost to keep the bus contractor’s business viable.
“I can assure you if we had to go out to bid next year for a bus contract,” said Olsen, “we would probably be paying considerably more money, because that company is going to hedge its bill based on whether or not they’re going to have a full return on their investment.”