Seattle Public Schools should consider pulling student bus service in-house so they can negotiate directly with bus drivers, and their union and avoid future strikes.
During the weeklong bus-driver strike in Seattle Public Schools that ended Saturday, parents struggled to get their kids to school and vented their anger at district officials. But the district is mostly powerless to intervene in such conflicts between the company it hired to provide student transportation, First Student, and its bus drivers.
School officials should carefully consider changing this disruptive and confusing situation — so it doesn’t occur again.
The district should find out if it would save money and frustration by taking over student transportation. It would have to rent or buy its own bus fleet but could negotiate directly with the bus drivers union. It should understand all the costs, risks and advantages of having an in-house bus service.
First Student and Teamsters Local 174 failed the state’s largest school district and Seattle parents by not reaching a contract agreement before a strike caused a massive disruption.
Although the district is in the first year of a three-year contract with First Student, researching the costs and benefits is a worthy exercise. An exploration of alternatives may also put First Student on notice that Seattle has options if the service doesn’t improve.
Only 15 of Washington’s 295 school districts contract out for student transportation. That number includes a few of the largest districts — Tacoma, Everett and Spokane — but mostly small ones. The economics around student transportation depend on factors including bell schedules and how spread out a district is geographically.
A 2012 study in Pennsylvania found privately run school buses cost more. The Keystone Research Center, an independent economic-research and public-policy group, found if every school district in Pennsylvania managed its own bus fleets, taxpayers would save an estimated $78 million statewide.
But — and this is a big consideration for a large school district like Seattle with more than 350 bus routes between two bell times — the upfront cost of buying a fleet of buses could be a major obstacle, explained economist Mark Price, co-author of the Keystone study.
Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland told the editorial board before the strike that bringing bus service in-house was not being discussed. In light of the strike, that topic should be reconsidered.