LOCKPORT – City school district officials and the president of Ridge Road Express are contesting a state audit, released Tuesday, that said the district did not get its money’s worth on bus consulting services and that it overpaid for diesel fuel.
Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said, “Certainly, we take it very seriously, but interestingly enough, we started to address these issues before the audit because we had some concerns.”
On June 10, the School Board hired Kevin P. Love, former transportation supervisor for the West Seneca district, as the district’s busing consultant. He succeeded Thomas Ryan, who was general manager of Ridge Road Express, the district’s busing company, for 20 years. The State Comptroller’s Office found that a little too cozy and said the old arrangement raised “a substantial concern as to whether the consultant could truly provide independent monitoring and consulting services in the district’s best interests.”
The Comptroller’s Office made the same point in a 2008 audit, but the following year, the district rehired Ryan, who worked through a company set up by Ridge Road Express called Scholastic Transportation Management Services. It was paid $179,194 from 2009 to 2015.
“That vendor was 50 percent cheaper than any others. Why would we pay double because of a perceived conflict of interest?” asked Deborah A. Coder, assistant superintendent for finance and management.
R. Thomas Weeks, president of Ridge Road Express, said Ryan never made any financial decisions.
The district also has not bid any of its six transportation contracts since 2009 – three go back to the 1980s, the audit said – and has simply rolled them over when they expire.
Coder said that the district lost $8 million in state aid in 2010 because of a state fiscal crunch and chose to extend Ridge Road Express with a 2 percent increase rather than seek bids, which she said probably would have increased busing costs 20 percent at a time when the district could ill afford it.
The audit said the company didn’t submit sufficient documentation for bus mileage and accused Ridge Road Express of overbilling the district for 5,249 gallons of diesel fuel in 2013-14 at a cost of about $16,300, based on miles driven as listed in the bus reports, records of fuel purchases and typical fuel mileage of a school bus. The audit also criticized the 5 percent add-on charge for warm-up and idling time, which the report said is not a charge listed in the contracts for bus services.
Weeks had his doubts about the audit’s accuracy. “We will get to the bottom of it. I’m not nervous about it at all,” he said.
Coder said that the district changed its system last summer and that instead of relying on drivers’ reports of beginning and ending mileage, monitoring software is in use. In addition, the district is no longer paying for “deadhead miles,” meaning the distance between the garage and the first or last stop on a route.
Coder said the auditor understood the reasons for the district’s actions but put them in the report as negatives, anyway. “They have to report on, ‘Well, it doesn’t look right,’ ” Coder said.