Questions surrounding the future of transportation at Seattle Public Schools

There are many questions surrounding the future of transportation at Seattle Public Schools (SPS) in the 2022-23 school year.

First Student is the current bus vendor for SPS, and it was competing for the district’s latest contract with Zum Services.

Zum Services released a statement on Tuesday announcing it had submitted a formal bid protest to SPS:

"Zum Services has submitted a formal bid protest challenging Seattle Public Schools (SPS) staff's announcement of their intent to recommend that the SPS Board of Directors award another 5-year student transportation contract to the troubled incumbent vendor, First Student. The protest highlights clear miscalculations in the RFP scoring process and urges SPS staff to update their recommendation to reflect Zum's scoring advantage."

In February, FOX 13 reported First Student was facing hundreds of safety violations, which have since been settled with the state.

"As you can see from our details on the WUTC situation, we don’t have a ‘record of safety violations,’ and anything that was a concern we addressed in a timely fashion and no school kids were negatively impacted ( Those violations were for our charter business, not our home-to-school business," said spokesperson Scott Gulbransen of FirstGroup America. "First Student is committed to safety as our Number 1 priority in Seattle, and everywhere we provide service. Our 30-year history in Seattle shows that not only do we make getting your kids to school safely every day our top priority, but we’ve been a great partner doing just that. We look forward to continuing that service and being the great start and end to each day for Seattle’s students."

A firm representing First Student also submitted a letter to SPS in response to Zum's protest which said in part:

"We understand that Zum Services, Inc ("Zum") filed a protest of the proposed award with SPS on May 2, 2022.1 As discussed in detail below, the bases for protest are entirely without merit, and we respectfully request that the protest be denied."

Gulbransen said the student transportation industry was already managing a driver shortage and the pandemic worsened the situation. He said First Student is relentlessly recruiting bus drivers. 

"In fact, in Seattle, we’re offering up to a $6,000 sign-on bonus for qualified applicants who have a CDL and a $2,000 bonus for non-CDL applicants, which we will train free. We also offer a $3,000 referral bonus to current employees who refer someone new. We also offer those drivers performance bonuses monthly and $31-per-hour to start."

Mary Ellen Russell is a parent of two children who attend SPS schools.

"They’re committed, for reasons that are not clear, to re-signing with a bus vendor that has an extensive record of safety violations," said Russell. "There are a lot of solutions to these problems, but just staying with the same vendor and insisting you can’t make any changes won’t fix the problems."

Russell has also been the Chair of the School Traffic Safety Committee which is a city commission that works with SPS and King County Metro on traffic safety issues. Her daughter’s bus route was also one of the 50 that the district suspended at the start of the school year.

"[Zum] already provides service for San Francisco, Oakland and they are taking over the service for the LA School District, the largest school district in the country next year. So they are fully capable of providing all the transportation," said Russell. "They’ve also been doing a pilot project with SPS this year because first student has been unable to take on all the routes and is particularly struggling to provide service to students with disabilities and other special needs."

In recent weeks, SPS families were told there could be bell time changes starting next school year, but in recent days SPS has decided to take a pause.

School officials were proposing to change the current two-tier start times to three-tier start times to address the nationwide bus driver shortage. On its website, the district said by moving to a three-tier system, it would allow drivers to pick up more routes and reduce the number of drivers needed.

However, after hearing feedback from families, school officials said they are "slowing down the decision-making process" to identify ways to address the concerns that were raised.
Andrew Cooper is a parent of a kindergartener and second-grader at SPS and shared testimony at the last SPS Board meeting advocating for transparency and data-driven decision-making.

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Using data from the State Superintendent’s Office and the U.S. Census Bureau, Cooper created an "SPS Start Times Exploration Tool" to help families examine the impact the proposed bell changes may have on students.

"The problem is SPS didn’t actually show us the range of options they looked at. Then, it may be that what they actually chose was the best option and most equitable, but we can’t see that. It just bothers me when organizations claim to be basing decisions on equity but then don’t defend those or explain those," said Cooper. "This gives more community level analysis, so we’re not just debating hyperbole and personal opinion. This is what the census data is showing."

School Spokesperson Tim Robinson told FOX 13 News last week that it was unknown if or when the issue may be included in an upcoming board meeting, but the next possible chance would be on May 18.