In the past three years, students in Seattle missed thousands of hours of class waiting for a yellow school bus.

In nearly 5,000 instances since the 2016-17 school year, Seattle Public Schools data shows, their rides never showed up or were more than an hour late. In about 4,600 cases, their buses were between 15 minutes and an hour late.

Seattle was one of many cities hit by a national school-bus driver shortage in the last few years. Here, the shortage peaked last fall — there weren’t enough bus drivers for each of the district’s several hundred routes. It took most of the school year, a supplemental contract with another bus company and a raise for drivers before parents reported consistent service.

But the district’s transportation problems ran deeper than a slim workforce, according to interviews and records obtained by The Seattle Times. They show a crisis worsened by a change in scheduling, poor communication about delays and a transportation department ill-equipped for the demands of transporting about 22,000 students in a city with some of the country’s worst traffic. Parents and principals wrote to district officials with horror stories of small children dropped off in the dark or, in one case, left without access to emergency medication.

Will this year be different? Parents calling the district’s transportation department will hear a recorded message telling them to expect delays over the first few days — but district officials say things will be better.

First Student provides most of Seattle’s 370 school buses. The bus contractor is fully staffed, said Fred Podesta, the district’s chief operations officer.  (First Student did not return two requests for comment.) Superintendent Denise Juneau said she’s made transportation a top priority, touting grand plans to hack transportation by thinking outside of just yellow-bus service. And the district plans to keep paying a different company up to $1.8 million to staff the routes First Student can’t handle.

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Parents will be watching closely.

“We’ll be ready to carpool,” said Eric de Place, who said his son Samuel rides the bus “all over God’s green earth in the Central District” to TOPS K-8, one of the schools hit hardest by the delays last year. “I continue to feel powerless in the face of this system that doesn’t seem to be changing much.”

How a scheduling change worsened delays

Late buses aren’t new. They’ve been a problem for at least three years, data shows. But a different issue worsened dramatically: incidents where buses are extremely delayed, or simply don’t show up, increased by 833% over two years.

Getting busing right depends on more than just transportation. In 2016, the district began starting some schools later to give students more sleep. Schools started at three different times.

But parents, especially those with kids at multiple schools, complained that the latest start time, 9:35 a.m., clashed with work schedules. The district had planned to add 20 minutes to the school day for teacher preparation, which delayed schedules further.

So in 2017, SPS condensed schedules: schools would have two starting and ending times. That’s when severe disruptions spiked.

Why? With less time, drivers could only manage one route without severely delaying the next, which meant the district’s contractor needed many more drivers.

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Though the district received a $2.3 million grant from the city to fund the anticipated increase in contract costs, First Student struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Becoming a bus driver is a monthlong process requiring medical examinations, training and background checks. Applicants drop out frequently, First Student officials said last year, and the workforce turns over as drivers seek more lucrative jobs.

Absences meant another driver would be asked to take on another route even if it meant getting there hours late.

“There just weren’t enough people,” said Joyce Hiatt, a Seattle school-bus driver for 48 years.

Stephen Nielsen, former deputy superintendent, said some district officials warned of the complications the transitions would create. But, he added, “We had no way to predict how much they would show up.” A task force of his colleagues and community members recommended the School Board approve the change.

Stephan Blanford, a School Board member until late 2017, was the sole “no” vote against accepting the city’s grant and changing the timing. He was concerned the district could not afford it.

Communication issues 

At the height of the crisis last fall, many parents complained that communication was either too late or nonexistent. The district’s late-bus notification system failed on the first day of school, triggering calls from parents to the district’s transportation hotline. But according to a January 2019 audit requested by the district, the hotline could not support numerous calls in waiting.

By 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2018, the first day of school last year, the transportation department was handling 173 calls per hour, emails show, 71% of which were abandoned.

Larry Ames considered calling the police when his son, who is on the autism spectrum, was almost two hours late coming back from Eckstein Middle School.

First Student drivers and supervisors are supposed to communicate on radios when delayed. But emails exchanged between district officials last fall show First Student sent the district inaccurate or late information. In one November 2018 incident, a driver had spent the morning looking for the keys to his bus, but First Student had marked him as having departed.

Some parents turned to principals, many of whom were in the same panic.

“The situation is untenable,” Lowell Elementary School principal Sarah Talbot wrote to district staff on the first morning of school last year after delays, explaining that her school had many high-needs students. (She did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.)

Talbot wrote again at 4:45 p.m. to warn district officials that the delays could become an emergency: a student has a seizure disorder and wouldn’t have access to her rescue medication — the school nurse who had it already left.

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The district sent a cab and two lift buses, according to the emails.

As First Student raised wages and ramped up recruiting, the service stabilized. But alerts and delays were still a part of many parents’ lives. Those who could formed neighborhood carpool groups, or drove their kids. But that wasn’t an option for Alison Li and her husband, who report to work early.

“Anytime I saw my phone light up I just knew it was the robocall about the bus being late,” said Li, whose daughters attended Louisa Boren STEM K-8. 

The path forward

One reason things devolved, Podesta said, is because the district largely ignored transportation for years.

The prevailing attitude was “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,'” said Podesta, a longtime City employee SPS hired as chief of operations in January.

A 2019 audit by the Council of Great City Schools said as much. Although many transportation employees were committed to their work, the report noted, the department “lacked the urgency” to improve. Following the audit’s recommendations, Podesta said, the department has more staff dedicated to customer service and oversight of First Student.

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The department is also “no longer five levels down in the management structure,” said Eden Mack, a School Board member.

Podesta added the district will focus on fixing inefficient routes — another issue the audit highlighted — and develop a bus tracker for parents.

Overall, district leadership wants to lean less on First Student. It plans to sign five new contracts with other transportation providers, including child-focused ride-hailing service HopSkipDrive.

That would be on top of the nearly $30 million a year it has spent on its contract with First Student, which expires in 2020. District attorneys also say they expect to recoup money First Student owes them for blown routes, delays and a 2018 driver strike.

Podesta added that the district plans to fix its procedures for snow days, which left many students with disabilities without transportation during last year’s snow storms. Federal law requires districts to get them to school.

Hiatt, the driver, has worked with many of the contractors who have provided bus service to the district. She said she’s seen marked improvement from First Student in recent years. And, she said, a new Seattle manager is running a tighter ship. She and other drivers spent the last few days doing dry runs of their routes.