Families around Seattle may soon see some relief from the persistent problem of late school buses. The public school district has announced it has found a second bus company to help deliver children to and from school, which will add 15 new buses, and drivers, into the mix.
Problems began last year. Labor troubles with First Student, the company which runs the bus system, began shortly after the beginning of the previous school year, with drivers going on a one-day strike in November 2017, followed by another strike in February that lasted eight days.
Even after the strikes ended, First Student struggled to find enough drivers. Some routes in the previous (2017-18) school year were so chronically late that district officials took to giving secondary school students ORCA cards, acknowledging that school buses simply couldn’t do the job. The issue has continued this year. Since the first day of school, some routes have run one or even two hours late, leaving parents worried and frustrated, and children milling around waiting for a bus to show up. There is no district policy on how, or whether, to provide supervision for children waiting for a delayed bus.
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The school district outsources its bus service to First Student, the North American arm of Scotland-based First Company. The district has a three-year contract with the company, for $27 million per year, running through 2020. They were the only bidder when the district’s previous bus contract expired in 2017.
First Student did not respond to a request for comment. They told KIRO7 in September that the late buses were the result of a driver shortage. The district has echoed this reasoning.
It might be unreasonable to expect every bus to be perfectly on time every day. Traffic accidents, weather and mechanical difficulties are just some of the unforeseen issues that could make a bus late.
Even taking that into account, First Student has been lacking. The generally acceptable standard for school buses is being on time 98% of the time, said Tim Robinson, Seattle Public Schools spokesman. That would translate to about eight of the district’s 361 route being late on a given day.
But that standard has been elusive. In recent weeks, First Student has been on time between 91 and 93% of the time, with at least one dip down to 88%, Robinson said. A bus is considered late if it is 10 minutes or more past the scheduled arrival time.
The district has 1,526 bus routes, which it needs 361 drivers to complete. On October 30th, for example, First student was only able to provide 342 of those drivers. The supplemental contract, which began Monday, brought in the promised additional 15 drivers, bringing the total to 357.
The supplemental contract with Durham Bus Service will cost about $250,000, according to the district. The money will be deducted from the amount paid to First Student. The supplemental contract will run through the end of the school year. Durham is also a subsidiary of a UK company, in this case Birmingham-based National Express.
A lack of drivers can tend to cause snowballing problems as the morning, or afternoon, wears on. School bus routes are considered either tier 1 or tier 2, explained Robinson. Often the designation is based on timing, with schools having different bell times, some bus drivers might be expected to drop off the early wave and head back out to pick up students for a later group.
As a result of the labor shortage, however, some tier 2 routes might not have an officially assigned driver. Those route would be distributed based upon factors like which drivers might have completed their tier 1 route earliest, and how close they are to the driverless route. On some days, there have been no easy answers.
In cases where First Student has to make a choice about which school to serve first, Robinson said there is a standing policy to accommodate special education students, 339 routes serve these students, and schools with a high level of Title 1 funding. Title 1 is a federal program which gives additional funding to schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families.
Robinson noted that the beginning of the school year can be a challenging time. While some number of students might be eligible to ride the bus, it’s difficult to say how many of them will actually show up to ride.
Beyond that, he said First Student has been improving incrementally. At present, the district is not seeking penalties, which are allowed under the contract, Robinson said.
In addition to the extra buses, the district has convened a transportation task force which is due to present its findings to the superintendent next week.