THE DRAMA OF the Dallas School District bus contract battle could hardly be denied.
A second-generation local family business suddenly facing imminent demise. School Board members torn between loyalty to the local company and fiduciary duty to taxpayers. The passionate support for Emanuel Bus Lines owner Jeff Emanuel voiced by many residents.
The plot had enough twists to fill a movie script. School Board Member Maureen Matiska choking up as she voted against awarding the contract to G. Davis of Pike County at a May 6 work session, calling it the hardest vote of her 20-year tenure. Allegations a “Child molester” worked at G. Davis after the board gave the company the job.
A crowd of Emanuel faithful successfully pressing the board to reconsider at a regular meeting a week later. Both companies taking turns filing court action, with Emanuel the ultimate loser in a decision issued Thursday.
Through it all Jeff Emanuel stood solemn, looking much like a favorite uncle suddenly struggling with a personal crisis. He offered a stack of letters testifying to his character and charity. Loyal drivers vowed to never work for another company.
Asked during court testimony why he never sought contracts with other districts, Emanuel replied, “I’m not about to put fellow company out of business.”
So it is easy to see Emanuel as the victim and G. Davis as, if not the villain, at least the ambitious out-of-towner.
But there are broader lessons.
As sympathetic as Emanuel’s plight is, the events show the risk of government bodies developing long-term business relations without a regular dose of competition — something that is the norm in Luzerne County.
This began when the Dallas School Board sought competitive proposals for transportation services after decades of simply renegotiating the contract with Emanuel every few years. G. Davis not only submitted the lower bid, it offered a fleet of new, propane-fueled buses, promising cleaner air and more state money in transportation reimbursements.
Questions have to be asked:
• Did Emanuel let the fleet age because the company assumed the Dallas contract would be renewed in perpetuity? Did the company get too complacent about past practices believing it had a secure future?
• Did the School Board cost taxpayers money over those decades by refusing to look for alternative contractors who may have produced equal or superior service at a lower price?
• If the lack of bidding hurt here, where else in district practices did it cost tax dollars?
• Was student safety weakened thanks to older buses lacking modern safety features?
There is more yet to come, as the district sees if G. Davis lives up to its promises, and Emanuel contemplates further legal action.
But surely this saga shows that foregoing competition in government contracts doesn’t avoid problems, it merely forestalls them.