School officials delay Durham decision

School officials delay Durham decision

NORTH PROVIDENCE – School officials have decided to pump the brakes for another month before making a final decision on whether the district will pay its transportation bill for the time during distance learning.

Thus far, North Providence has opted not to pay its busing company, Durham School Services, for the balance of the school year after coronavirus forced learning to transition online.

The School Committee was expected to make a decision last week on whether it will pay for busing for the balance of the school year beyond March 13 when schools closed.

School Committee Chairman Frank Pallotta said the district could save $750,000 by withholding the payment.

Though that decision was tabled for another month, the school board did vote on a contract extension for Durham that includes specific language governing emergencies.

School attorney Ben Scungio recommended they “kick over” the decision on whether to pay Durham to next month’s meeting, but take up the new contract as a separate issue.

“We have negotiated what we believe are excellent contract terms for next year and future years at a rate most school districts would die for,” Scungio said, noting that it’s “very important” for the district to lock-in its contract now.

He said North Providence was fortunate to have gone out to bid for its busing contract before COVID-19 so the process was not impacted by the pandemic.

Under the new contract, the district will pay half of the daily rate for transportation if students are again forced to learn online.

Scungio said picking up half the tab for distance learning days is “an excellent compromise,” especially given the increases in rates the district will experience over a three-year period.

With transportation set to cost roughly $2.4 million next year, School Committee member Steven Andreozzi expressed concerns with being on the hook for 50 percent of an expensive contract if the entire school year is digital.

Scungio said there’s no getting out of it.

“If we lose the entire year, we have to pay them, period,” he said.

He said the contract gives Durham the ability to stay afloat, hire employees and service buses, while giving the district the “certainty of transportation” whenever school is in session.

“If you don’t work out some compromise, you have no busing at all,” he said, noting that in Rhode Island only “one bus company appears to be responding to bids right now, for whatever reason, and they’re asking for significant increases.”

Regarding this year’s $750,000 busing bill, Goho said the federal CARES Act has given the district some latitude to not pay, but that there isn’t expected to be any more wiggle room next year.

“Next year, if there is no CARES Act but still distance learning in effect, we will have to abide by the contract language,” he said.