Montgomery County’s inspector general on Monday again raised concerns about a contract the school district entered in 2016 that outfitted school buses with safety cameras.
In July, an inspector general report took aim at the contract’s integrity and the school district’s commitment to ensuring its effectiveness. The report came after several officials associated with the camera company pleaded guilty to taking and offering bribes associated with the program.
During a joint meeting of the Montgomery County Council’s Education & Culture and Public Safety committees, the inspector general reviewed the report and council members pushed for clarification about how MCPS vetted the camera company.
The inspector general report said that there is no indication any Montgomery County or MCPS employee violated any rules or laws or “had any inappropriate relationship with the vendor.”
But the report said, “it is not apparent that any significant due diligence process took place concerning information supplied by the vendor even after significant adverse information came to light.”
“However, both [Montgomery County police] and MCPS appear to remain reluctant to re-assess the … contract and continue to rely on vendor supplied information to justify the business case and public safety value of the program,” according to the report.
In a response, included in the report, MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andy Zuckerman disagreed with the inspector general’s report and recommendations.
Zuckerman wrote that the bus camera program is integral to ensuring student safety, even though the report said data does not show the cameras have “any measurable impact on or correlation with improvements in pedestrian or traffic safety or collision reduction.”
Zuckerman’s response, however, did not address whether MCPS reassessed the contract.
Todd Watkins, director of the MCPS Department of Transportation Central Administration, said on Monday that MCPS reassessed the contract and that MCPS feels confident the agreement is fiscally responsible and divorced from the problems the company, Force Multiplier, had.
In 2018, Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard, Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorells and Dallas Mayor Dwaine Caraway all pleaded guilty to crimes involving bribes and kickbacks to public officials in exchange for “favorable actions furthering [Force Multiplier’s] local business interests,” the county inspector general’s report said. The conspiracy led to the Dallas County School District’s bankruptcy.
At a press conference Monday morning, before the council hearing, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith emphasized that the crimes did not take place in, and were not related to, Montgomery County and that they happened several years ago.
He said he is more concerned about the thousands of people who pass stopped school buses each year than the inspector general’s report.
“While I’m always concerned about the OIG and making sure we’re doing the work in an effective, efficient and appropriate manner,” he said, “I’m more concerned with what the cameras show, which is literally thousands of people passing stopped school buses in this county with the lights on, stop signs out. I think that’s horrifying and I would call upon all the people in this county: If in doubt, stop. Don’t pass school buses.”
The cameras capture video of motorists who pass a stopped bus with its stop-arm extended and flashing lights activated, and issues tickets to those drivers.
More than 54,000 tickets had been issued in Montgomery County through the end of the 2018-19 school year.
When the investigation into Force Multiplier unfolded in 2017, MCPS signed an amended contract delegating the company’s duties to a company named BusPatrol America. Two years remain in the existing contract.
On Monday, David Anderson, assistant chief of the county police department’s field services bureau, said the bus camera program has generated more than $21.4 million from ticket fines. The executed contract says MCPS and the bus company would enter into a revenue-sharing agreement after generating about $19 million from ticket fines — the cost of installing the cameras on MCPS’s 1,300 buses.
MCPS and police officials said they have been in negotiations with BusPatrol “for months” and expect a finalized, updated contract soon.
County Inspector General Megan Davey Limarzi called the contract “slightly unusual” because it is a “bridge contract” using an existing agreement between the company and the Baton Rouge, La., public school system.
“The regular controls we have in the county, the rules weren’t applied in this situation because it wasn’t a county contract,” Limarzi said. “It is clearly stated in our report that nobody broke any rules, nobody committed any criminal violations we could find, but what did happen is that folks figured out how to take advantage of every opportunity to get what they wanted and when they wanted [it].”
She said the county should look to increase oversight of bridge contracts, including ensuring there is a paper trail to document all happenings related to the execution of the contract.
“If it’s not written down, I don’t think it really happened,” Limarzi said. “… We are held as public officials and public employees to a higher standard and we have to answer to the community to ensure due diligence is done.”
Zuckerman on Monday said that although county and school district procurement procedures differ, he agrees there were lessons learned.
“Bridging is a perfectly normal procedure that we do and it’s done quite regularly in school districts,” Zuckerman said. “Not only were there no laws broken, but procedurally, nothing was done wrong. What we have here is a situation of how can we do this differently in the future, and we’re very interested in that.”
Each County Council member who attended Monday’s meeting said they support the objective of the bus camera program, but many were concerned about the contract itself.
Council Member Craig Rice threw his full support behind the program.
“For me, I care about the safety of every single one of our kids,” Rice said. “That’s more important than any dollar can ever be, because no dollar can bring anybody back.”
“I agree with most of what you said,” council Vice President Sidney Katz said to Rice. “Although, what we need is to make sure the new contract coming up (for revenue sharing between BusPatrol and MCPS) is the best contract we can possibly have.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com