WOONSOCKET — In an about-face, Durham School Services has agreed to provide student transportation services for the rest of the year even though it’s owed more than $500,000 by the cash-choked Woonsocket Education Department, school officials announced Thursday.
School Supt. Giovanna Donoyan said the company had previously advised the WED it would discontinue service on Monday unless the department satisfied the debt. The Warrenville-Ill.-based transportation giant changed its mind after a conference call with company executives, state revenue officials and the office of Mayor Leo Fontaine.
“I was very honest with them,” said Donoyan. “The department has done everything it can. The city has done its due diligence at this point. They’ve approved a supplemental tax bill. It’s in the hands of the state now.”
By the end of the school year, Donoyan said Durham would probably be owed close to half its $1.5 million contract for fiscal 2011, which includes busing students to out-of-district special education providers and local parochial schools as well as all public schools.
Donoyan publicly thanked the company for hanging in despite the WED’s financial crisis — a $10 million budget shortfall which has thrust the city into a cash-flow emergency that could easily morph into bankruptcy.
As a partial strategy for filling the hole, a supplemental tax bill of 13 percent was approved by the City Council Monday, but some members of General Assembly are sending out mixed signals on whether they’ll back the enabling legislation necessary for the tax to be implemented. State Rep. Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket), for example, claimed on WPRO radio this week that the delegation hadn’t been briefed in sufficient depth to make an informed decision, triggering a terse response from Fontaine.
“I have emailed you and the rest of the delegation offering to meet with you to answer any questions you may have...” the mayor told Brien in an email obtained by The Call. “I have not received any response. I understand that we are all very busy, but I just wanted to restate that I am available along with (the finance director) to answer any questions you may have...”
Every member of the city’s legislative delegation from the House and Senate has been asked to attend a briefing session on the proposed supplemental tax bill in Harris Public Library Monday at 7 p.m. The City Council called the special joint meeting with the School Committee.
Meanwhile, even as Durham agreed to continue providing service without payment, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist stepped in yesterday to make sure several special education subcontractors who are owed money continue to be paid.
In a five-page order, Gist informed the WED that RIDE would deduct $185,000 a month from its state aid and send the money directly to Northern Rhode Island Community Services, Inc., the Sargent Center and Action Based Enterprises/Hillside Alternative Program. Last week, RIDE held formal hearings requested by the vendors pleading for state intervention, saying the loss of revenues from the city had placed their operations in jeopardy.
At the time of the hearing, on March 27, NRI Community Services, where tuitions run about $60,000 a month for two dozen students, was owed about $250,000. Sargent, with monthly tuition bills of $11,890 for two students, was owed $83,234. Action Based Enterprises, with a tab of $113,000 a month for 27 students, was owed $523,088, according to the RIDE order.
“The Woonsocket School Department is unable to make monthly payments or bring its accounts with these private schools current at this time and does not have an alternative plan to provide or maintain special education services to these Woonsocket students,” the order says.
Asked whether the docking order represents a significant loss to the WED, Finance Director Thomas Bruce said, “It does.” The department takes in aid at the rate of about $4.1 million per month from the state, plus another $500,000 or so from other sources.
About $3.8 million of that is eaten up by personnel costs alone.
Donoyan said the WED is currently in arrears to an assortment of vendors in the amount of about $5 million; The vendors include National Grid, Durham School Services and other special education providers who did not petition the state for direct payment.
The second-largest student transportation company in the nation, Durham School Services runs some 13,900 buses in 350 school districts in 30 states, according to the company’s website.
Had the company discontinued service, Donoyan said she was ready to call on Valley Transportation, a longtime former bus contractor, to provide some level of backup service.
“We weren’t just waiting for it to happen,” said Donoyan. “We were actively working on a contingency plan that would have provided, at a minimum, transportation for our special needs students.”