Monday, October 19, 2020

Today's Contract Committee meeting - disappointing with few questions & confusing answers from DOE

Above is the video from today's Contract Committee of the Panel for Educational Policy. It was a short meeting, mostly composed of Charlotte Hamamgian, the DOE Executive Director of Contracts and Purchasing, reading aloud the list of summaries of all the different contracts, which together cost about  $400 million this month. Only two PEP members asked questions, Kathy Park Price with a quick follow-up from Isaac Carmignani; unclear how many others listened in or if there was a quorum.

It was extremely disconcerting how the most elementary questions about the busing contracts were responded to with confusing, inadequate and sometimes downright contradictory responses from the DOE officials in charge. including Lindsey Oates, the DOE CFO and Sean Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the city Department of Education's pupil transportation unit.

  • When Kathy asked about how much was paid to busing for the entire month of Sept. when schools were closed till Sept. 29, Lindsey Oates said 100% payments were made; adding that one or two days may have been at 85%.  Then Sean Fitzpatrick interjected to say that DOE paid Sept. 23 and 24 at the 85% rate, but after that at 100%. Isaac follow up to ask, so we didn't pay anything before then? and Sean said that was correct, appearing to contradict Lindsey Oates.  This left the actual amount of payments for Sept. as clear as mud. 
  • Kathy then asked what was paid during March & April when schools were closed, Oates said we paid them  at "85% rate for the spring," making it unclear if she was referring to those months or the entire spring.  It was previously reported that only 40% was paid during May and June, although the DOE originally planned to pay 85% for these months, after I and others asked why and the NYC Comptroller objected.
  •  Oates did explain that although more than 100 schools have been closed to in-person learning so far this fall, at least temporarily, this hasn't led to any busing savings, since the 43% clause is only triggered if the entire school system is shut down.  This means that even if more than half the schools are shut and no buses are used for those students, NYC still has to pay 100% of the full amount, or more than $1.1 billion a year -- for as long as every single school hasn't closed its doors.

Kathy also asked if parents are ever surveyed about their satisfaction with the performance of the bus companies.  The Charlotte Hamamgian said no, and claimed that the DOE had a "really rigorous performance evaluation process " for the bus companies, and that a lot of "due diligence" went into this. 

This claim was called into serious question last March by the NYC Comptroller here:

The Comptroller demanded answers about DOE’s persistent refusal to use rigorous and regular performance evaluations to ensure taxpayers are getting the services they pay for and that safety procedures are followed. Comptroller Stringer also raised alarms about DOE’s consistent failure to abide by even the most basic procurement protocols. In December, Comptroller Stringer returned $9.1 billion in school bus contract extensions after DOE failed to satisfactorily explain ballooning spending.

It would to nice to see a copy of the DOE's “rigorous” performance evaluations.

Kathy also asked why the DOE decided to extend the bus company contracts through 2025 at these terms. Sean Fitzpatrick said the the major benefits were to keep the busing contracts "solvent" and ensure the companies have personnel on hand. Yet these long-term extensions seem very unwise, especially  given huge uncertainties about future school closures and the current economic crisis which may cause even more radical budget cuts to schools; not to mention t that this administration will leave office in 2021.  Hamamgian said they would bring the DOE planned acquisition of Reliant bus company costing many more millions of dollars to the PEP at a future meeting.

There remain many more unanswered questions that I included in my memo to PEP members last week. Let's hope more questions are asked at the full PEP meeting on Wed. Oct 21 at 6 PM; more info including agenda here, with a link to the proposed contracts.  You can listen or sign up to speak starting at 5:30 PM here.

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