Even before the pandemic, transporting kids to school in Seattle was an expensive affair.
As the number of kids taking a yellow bus to school fell by 11% between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the district’s spending per child on transportation increased by more than a third, to $3,306. The figure is higher than any other school district in the state, and more than three times the national average, according to a Seattle Times review of state and national data.
The increase is due to a complicated mix of forces, chief among them a yearslong national struggle to recruit and retain bus drivers. The district has spent millions of dollars on cab and van services to make up for chronically late buses, and agreed to increase payments to bus contractor First Student to help recruit and retain drivers.
Now, as the district asks for bids for its next transportation contract in 2022, some families are questioning why Seattle has continued to hire private contractors.
“What [is] the cost to families to keep using this failed model?” asked Jonathan Rosenblum, a Seattle parent who, along with his daughter, has campaigned for the district to move its bus service in-house.
Most districts across the country have seen their transportation expenses increase in recent years. State documents and information collected from a third-party auditor point to other factors that make Seattle transportation more costly, some of which the district has known about for years.
Though its riders live in the state’s densest city, the district had among the lowest ridership levels per school bus in the 2018-19 school year among larger districts: 11,437 kids distributed in groups of roughly 39 kids per bus, according to state documents. The suburban Evergreen Public Schools, just north of Portland, puts an average of twice as many kids on each bus, and it transports just 500 fewer students than Seattle, according to state data.
This disparity defies the conventional wisdom in school transportation, which finds that, generally, districts in urban centers are able to cut down their per-pupil costs because they have more students and homes are closer together.
Tim Robinson, a district spokesperson, attributed the low ridership to tightly drawn boundaries for bus service at many schools, and use of smaller buses to navigate narrow streets. The number could also be low because large numbers of middle and high schoolers in Seattle use public transportation to commute to school, said Patti Enbody, the state’s director of student transportation.
When asked about Seattle’s ridership costs last month, Enbody paused for a moment. She suspected there may have been a math error in the state’s reports because $3,306 per pupil seemed high.
“I can’t say what they’re facing, but it’s enough for me to want me to go back again, to make sure the right information is pulled,” she said.
There weren’t any errors. But the per-pupil costs, she said, don’t include the several hundred students who may have received van or cab service over the years, so it may not reflect the true cost.
“They’re an outlier”
The latest $40 million contract, which included a 5% rate increase between First Student and Seattle Public Schools, was approved last August to serve as many as 18,000 kids eligible for transportation. But because of trouble with recruiting drivers, the district suspended 142 routes soon after school began in the fall, meaning First Student isn’t receiving the full contract amount, and that it is also serving a smaller number of children.
Around 60% of school bus riders in Seattle are receiving special education services, according to Robinson, the SPS spokesperson.
A third or more of these kids attend a school outside their neighborhood to receive services, according to the district. District policy requires these rides to take no longer than 60 minutes, and “the majority of these routes have less than 10 riders.”
A 2019 review of transportation issues by the Council of Great City Schools, which was commissioned by the district, found that virtually 100% of kids with disabilities ride in compact vehicles (which seat 20 students, versus 74 on typical buses) that only transport other kids with disabilities. State law encourages, but doesn’t require, districts to integrate kids with disabilities on the standard large buses when possible — research shows that kids tend to fare better when they’re included in the general education setting.
This figure could be incomplete: the district only tracks ridership for kids with disabilities if transportation is an explicit part of their legally guaranteed services, or Individualized Education Plan. It’s possible that some kids receiving those services could be riding on the larger-capacity buses, but how many is unclear.
For many students, the smaller buses are necessary because they have wheelchair lifts and specially trained drivers. But some kids who get this service as part of their IEPs don’t necessarily need to be on the smaller bus, said Shawna Murphy, a Seattle parent of two kids with IEPs who ride the bus.
“I keep asking for inclusive bus service where … students can ride a gen[eral] ed[ucation] bus with an [instructional aide] instead of being segregated,” Murphy said. “I think it would be worth differentiating. One size doesn’t fit all.”
The number of buses and drivers needed — and the number of delays, by proxy — increased significantly after the district changed bell schedules in 2017 and removed a later bell time that parents said clashed with their schedules. Having three staggered start and end times gave some bus drivers enough time to run two routes in the morning and afternoon.
The newest request for transportation bids by the district indicates that there may be a change to bell times in order to cut down on buses needed.
A couple of school districts, including Tacoma, run their own fleet of special education buses but contract out for general education buses, apparently in an effort to curb costs.
Seattle has to report its costs and total ridership to the state for reimbursement. But its per-pupil spending figures aren’t used to determine funding. The dollars are typically awarded based on the number of riders, miles driven and the previous year’s expenditures.
In fact, Seattle is one of a few districts in the state that doesn’t receive an “efficiency review” — a rating that compares a district’s expenses with others of the same size. It’s a way for districts to check back and see if anything “unusual” has happened with their costs, said Enbody. The ratings also do not count toward funding.
“SPS is considered 100% efficient, they’re an outlier, there are no other districts to compare them to,” she said.
Another way to do business?
After years of some of the rockiest school-bus service that Seattle kids have ever experienced, the district is now looking at bids on a new contract for school-bus service. It has pushed the deadline for the application back three times, eventually closing it on Dec. 8.
What’s in the next agreement, and who the successful bidder will be, will be critical to future spending and the lives of thousands of families relying on the service, 40% of whom saw their service cut at one point this fall.
Contracts with outside companies for school-bus service can be more expensive than providing the service in-house, said Mark Price, a labor economist who co-authored a 2011 report on the subject by examining school districts in Pennsylvania. At the time, he was working for the Keystone Research Center, a pro-labor think tank.
In that state, school districts are given incentives to contract with outside providers in exchange for a higher transportation reimbursement. Switching to an outside provider didn’t help or hurt the district, said Price, since their costs were covered by the state, but it did cost the state more money. There is no such incentive in Washington state.
Newspaper accounts suggest that SPS never owned its own fleet of buses. The district first started offering yellow bus service, through a contractor, in the 1970s. Absent that, children walked to school or used public transit.
The idea to contract can seem attractive at first, Price said. Contractors will pitch to districts that they can take these services off the district’s hands, and cut costs — mostly by offering less in the way of benefits to workers. But at least in his study, that promise of lower costs didn’t pan out during the years studied.
“In the U.S., we use contracting a lot for construction. A school district doesn’t build a building once a year, so they use a contractor. That makes a lot of economic sense. But school transport is a bit different. It’s a core function.”
Price also believes private contracting may exacerbate the shortage of bus drivers, given the generally less generous benefits for private workers compared to those employed by school districts. In 2018, First Student’s Seattle drivers went on strike for a week for better pay and benefits.
“[The companies] are not big-hearted. They are not in this because they love driving kids. They’re in this because they want to make a return on their investment,” said Price.
It’s unclear if that disparity in costs exists in Washington state. Unlike in Pennsylvania, school-bus drivers are typically unionized here, and there hasn’t been any local analysis on whether school districts’ benefits are better.
The costs of purchasing a fleet of buses, and finding a place to park them, has kept that idea off the table for serious discussion so far. It is a possibility the district may consider in the future, said Robinson.
“I’m not sure how they would fund the purchases of new buses — that would be a challenge,” said Enbody.
But the economic costs to working families who have been stranded over the years is the most important question, said Rosenblum, who works as a community organizer for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. He called the continued privatization of the district’s bus service “shameful.”
Others have also spoken up about the district’s practice of contracting.
“SPS is incredibly hampered by having a third party,” especially when it comes to timely communication about buses, said Mary Ellen Russell, a parent who has been on the city’s school traffic safety committee for years.
Three years ago, Rosenblum’s 16-year-old daughter, Natalya McConnell, authored a petition with 1,000 signatures urging SPS to “Fire First Student” and bring services in-house.
McConnell, now a student at Franklin High School, had personal experience with the frenetic bus service. After researching the issue, she realized “the entire issue was caused by a profit incentive.” She and her dad shared the petition with the School Board in February 2019.
But by October 2019, the district had extended its contract with the company and settled with First Student for a fraction of the additional expenses the district could have sought for inconsistent service.