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State probing city schools' bus contracts

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli is investigating the Baltimore school system's handling of bus contracts worth about $2.6 million a year, and school officials have launched their own review.

Disclosure of the inquiries follows a report in The Sun yesterday on how bus company operator Biff Allender more than doubled his school system business despite a history of safety problems. Competitors have complained of favoritism in the awarding of contracts to the Allender Group.

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Investigators James Cabezas and Randi Wright from Montanarelli's office have been conducting interviews of school bus contractors, including Allender. Erin Bruce, Allender's daughter, has said that she and her father met recently with the two investigators, answered their questions and agreed to provide documents relating to the firm's school business.

"We've been cooperating," Bruce said.

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She said the investigation appeared to be focused on the sudden growth of her father's business and allegations of favoritism. Allender has said that the inquiry is simply the result of complaints from jealous competitors.

Owners of three other school bus companies said they also had been interviewed by members of Montanarelli's staff.

Montanarelli declined yesterday to comment on the probe.

Edie House, a spokeswoman for the school district, said yesterday that an internal review of all the questions raised in the article was under way and could be completed by the end of the week.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that while he was not familiar with all of the details of the handling of the school bus contracts, the disclosures reinforced his concerns about the financial operations of the school district.

"They have got to reform and professionalize the business operations of the school system. I am not satisfied with any of those operations," said O'Malley, adding that he would be asking school officials for details of the school bus contracts.

According to estimates from Allender, his companies have been transporting about 2,000 city students per day, many in special education programs.

Bruce and her father said that all the safety issues raised in past inspection reports have been resolved. Allender had received an "unsatisfactory" rating in mid-March, in the school system's most recent review.

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As the newspaper reported yesterday, Allender got school system approval to take over the routes of Barber Transportation and buy out another operator, City Wide Transportation. Both approvals came after an accident Jan. 8, 2002, in which an Allender-operated bus crashed into a Northeast Baltimore house.

School officials approved the takeovers on terms financially favorable to Allender, in one case approving a 70 percent increase. Competitors, who had previously submitted lower bids than Allender in seeking some school bus business, said they were never contacted about their possible interest in the routes.

School officials would not answer many questions before publication of yesterday's article. After its publication, officials released new details about the most recent safety review of Allender's combined operations.

The three major violations, according to school officials, were a defective back-up motor, a leaking brake caliper and a malfunctioning upper stop sign light. All were corrected within 30 days.

Allender, according to the district, also was fined a total of $8,500 because he placed uncertified aides or drivers on his buses, a problem that has since been corrected.

Also released were midyear review records showing that in addition to Allender and City Wide, five other school bus companies were rated "unsatisfactory" in the March reviews. House said the companies are automatically rated "unsatisfactory" if a single major safety violation is found.


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