After a school year of consistently late buses, driver shortages and an unusually long bidding war over the Seattle Public Schools’ bus contract, the district will split the contract between its decadeslong provider and a California-based company new to the city.

The Seattle School Board voted Wednesday evening to award a three-year, $135.6 million contract to both relative newcomer Zum and 30-year transportation partner First Student, one of the largest bus providers in the country. The contract will cost the district a total of $45.2 million annually. 

These figures are estimates, and how much contractors get paid will depend on how many buses are provided, said Fred Podesta, assistant superintendent of operations. 

“We are in the position of choice for the first time in many years,” Podesta told the board Wednesday. “Being in a position to have multiple vendors provide us services, so we can see alternatives, is a good problem to have.”

Seattle students who take the bus experienced one of the most hectic school years in recent memory. Buses were chronically late, causing students to miss class. Bus routes were slashed because there weren’t enough drivers to meet the demand — a nationwide problem. The district proposed a plan to change class start times in the fall to fix its transportation issues, but the backlash from parents and board members put a stop to that plan.

And the bidding process was chaotic. In October, Seattle Schools posted a request for a bid. It was taken down in February shortly after a state investigation revealed hundreds of safety violations from First Student. The district posted another bid in March and recommended the board award the full contract to First Student. Then, Zum protested the recommendation, citing errors the district made calculating costs for the contract.

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With two bus contractors, transportation options for students will now expand, said district spokesperson Bev Redmond in a statement. 

“We commend the Board for moving this important matter forward and remaining centered on the needs of our students,” Redmond said. “Our focus remains on providing our SPS families with school bus transportation that is safe, reliable, and on time in order to ensure maximum instruction for all students.”

Having two bus contractors gives Seattle Schools more flexibility: If one falls through, the other can pick up the slack. However, there are also signs the driver shortage is becoming more manageable — one of the main issues causing transportation woes this past school year. 

First Student has recently received 95 bus driver applications, said Greg Newman, the company’s regional vice president, during the board meeting. 

The driver shortage “seems to have started to turn,” said Scott Gulbransen, First Students’ director of communication, in an interview. Bus driver wages have been increased by about $8, he said, and drivers now start out making between $31 and $36 an hour. 

“Bus drivers should all be paid competitively,” said Ritu Narayan, Zum’s chief executive officer, in an interview. “We are working strongly with the district to make sure school bus drivers are paid the same.”

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Meanwhile, Zum, which was founded in 2014 and has provided some transportation service to the district since 2019, has been busy setting up a bus yard in South Seattle. The location is a couple of blocks away from Sound Transit’s Rainier Beach Station, said Victoria Plummer, the company’s northwest regional director of operations. The company is hiring 200 drivers, and buses will be arriving in the coming weeks, she added.

“We commend district leadership on their decision to make a much-needed change in the status quo and invite Zum to provide school transportation to SPS families,” Plummer said during the meeting. “While any change is hard, we believe a regular update to the community on our progress will go a long way.”

First Student is also working on providing technology that will be ready in the fall to allow parents to track their children’s bus route on an app or computer, which has been a consistent request this school year from parents. Zum says it has this technology in place.

And in the next 10 years, Gulbransen said, the goal is for all of Seattle’s First Student buses to be electric. 

Zum says it is committed to having all of its buses be electric by 2025. For now, the company will provide a couple of electric buses in Seattle, Narayan said. Bus fleets will transition to all-electric in three to four years, she said.