PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence schools maintenance contractor Aramark is calling on city officials to cancel a $72 million deal recently awarded to a rival company, alleging breach of contract and a flawed bidding process that was “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”
Target 12 obtained a letter Aramark lawyers sent Monday to city and school officials, alleging the district will breach an existing contract if the Providence School Board signs off on the new maintenance contract awarded to ABM Industries. That contract would begin on August 1.
“PPSD cannot enter into a contract with ABM beginning August 1, 2023 without breaching its existing agreement with Aramark, thereby inflicting significant damages on Aramark while incurring financial liability for PPSD in the process,” Aramark attorney Joseph Cavanagh III argued in the letter.
The letter raises the possibility the publicly traded food and maintenance giant is gearing up for a legal battle against the state-run school district. But tensions between education officials and Aramark have been brewing for years, as district leaders have repeatedly blamed the company for failing to address the deteriorating condition of various school buildings.
In Wednesday night’s meeting, school board president Erlin Rogel asked about the possibility of the two contracts overlapping. Zack Scott, deputy superintendent of operations, explained why waiting for Aramark’s contract to expire in November would be difficult for students and staff.
“As you can imagine, the start of school is an incredibly hectic time across the district in general, but particularly around getting our schools and facilities ready,” Scott said. “To do things like the transition of a facilities contract when you are hiring staff, inventory of equipment, cleaning… hard to do that when you are right in the middle of a school year.”
Scott explained both contractors would not be working in schools at the same time, and that a discussion about a transitional period needs to take place.
“We engaged with the current vendor, letting them know that we would be awarding this contract August 1, and that we would need to negotiate what the impact is to them, knowing that their contract extends through November,” he said.
Rogel said schools being ready on day one is the board’s “number one concern.”
“It’s one thing to switch contractors, however, I think it would make all of us feel comfortable if we were presented with some type of transition plan, and what that would look like,” he said.
The board approved the deal in its meeting on Wednesday night without opposition.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green — who controls the Providence schools following a 2019 state takeover — said the state awarded the contract to ABM as part of an effort to implement a “performance-based” system for maintenance.
“Basically, you perform, you get paid,” Infante-Green told Target 12. “That is a whole different way of operating.”
Aramark, which has held the Providence contract for 18 years, pointed the finger back at the school district, saying maintenance of the public buildings has been a challenge due to the district’s “decades-long practice of deferring maintenance and/or postponing infrastructure replacements.”
“For example, prior to contracting Aramark, PPSD estimated its backlog of deferred maintenance and/or capital replacement to be more than $750 million,” Cavanagh wrote.
In addition to alleging a breach of contract, Aramark also criticized the overall procurement process that lead up to the district awarding the multiyear deal to ABM, calling it “significantly flawed.”
Cavanagh said Aramark’s lawyers are still seeking public documents tied to the process, but he argued it was apparent the consultant hired to put together the bidding process created a “sloppy procurement full of errors.” He accused the consultant — Performance Resource Partners — of setting specifications that were identical to another procurement the company ran at Trinity College in Connecticut in 2019.
“By sloppily leaving references to Connecticut law, the contractor arising from the RFP is now subject to Connecticut law regarding paving, pest control, energy audits and landscaping,” Cavanagh wrote. “In fact, the RFP requires the vendor to use Connecticut licensed personnel to comply with Connecticut law without regard to Rhode Island’s regulatory scheme.”
The 12-page letter outlined a variety of other grievances, including a claim that while it appeared ABM’s total proposed contract cost totaled $192,800 less than Aramark’s proposal, the costs didn’t account for a $750,000 cost the company had agreed to cover for repairing deficient and obsolete equipment that the city would otherwise have to cover.
“Therefore, in a straight price basis, Aramark’s ‘price’ is lower than ABM by $557,198,” Cavanagh wrote.
Cavanagh concluded by arguing city officials should cancel the contract with ABM and instead extend the existing deal with Aramark for another year, “which will allow PPSD time to conduct a proper procurement for IFM services.”
Despite the legal pushback from Aramark, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley appears confident the deal was moving forward. On Wednesday, he told Target 12 the School Board likely had some questions, but that his biggest concern was that there be an “orderly transition.”
“Changing vendors is disruptive, anytime,” Smiley said. “It’s particularly disruptive if there’s been a long-term vendor, so my primary concern is to make sure that schools are ready to open in September, and they open smoothly.”
Asked whether Aramark had done something wrong, Smiley punted to state officials.
“The contract was bid and awarded by the school department, which as you know, is under state control right now,” he said. “You’d have to ask them about what the intent was.”