Single-bid contracts. That’s when a government agency awards a contract to a company without receiving competitive bids.

That’s usually bad for business, and it certainly shouldn’t be business as usual.

Yet that’s exactly what Civil Beat reporter Katherine Poythress, working with her colleague Michael Levine, revealed has happened with regular school bus contracts in Hawaii over the past four years. Contracts worth $72 million, in fact.

It took hundreds of hours to build a complex spreadsheet outlining more than 100 contracts representing more than 700 routes over 11 years. What they discovered was disturbing. Every contract for a regular school bus route over the past four years has been a single-bid contract.

Maybe, just maybe, there were reasons why this happened.

But did the number of children being served change? No. The number of routes change? Not substantially. Fewer bus companies? No.

Bus contracts weren’t always single-bid.

Ten years ago, more than 75 percent of routes had multiple bids. Five years ago, it was still more than half. But for the past four years, it’s been all single-bid. As a result, the cost to the state increased by more than 50 percent, from $47 million to $72 million.

The lack of competition has been good for the state’s 10 bus companies that serve regular education students. But not for students, parents or taxpayers.

Scarce dollars that could have gone to classrooms have instead been funneled to school bus operators.

At Civil Beat, we explain our work by using the phrase, “Change begins with a question.™”

In the case of Hawaii’s school bus contracts, we think it’s clear that something’s got to change.

And the obvious question is whether what has to change is what may be happening out of sight of the public.

Today we also learned from Katherine’s reporting that the FBI is looking into possible price-fixing. That’s good news. After all these years, Hawaii taxpayers deserve an answer.

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