Delays — some up to 2 hours — are still being reported on dozens of routes. Parents around the city are mobilizing for carpools, making daily calls to the district's transportation department and wondering when the delays will end.
It’s mid-October, and despite Seattle Public Schools’ assurances that its school-bus contractor would fix its driver shortage by early this month, some families still can’t count on regular bus service.
Thirty-eight routes posted delays Monday afternoon. As recently as Tuesday morning, 35 routes had delays of up to 2 hours.
The delays continue even as the school district and its contractor, First Student, implement stop-gap measures to mitigate disruptions. In late September, First Student gave raises to all of its drivers, increasing its starting hourly wage from $18 to $22 an hour. It is also offering one-time hiring bonuses of up to $3,000.
Those efforts have led to some “staffing improvements,” including 42 new applications as of last Friday, First Student spokesperson Chris Kemper wrote in an email. But the company “did not receive the applications that [it] expected to achieve an October timeline.”
It takes a month for the company to vet candidates during the training and licensing process. He said three drivers started this week, and predicted a few more would begin over the next two weeks.
“It continues to be difficult to predict,” Kemper added.
In addition to the $29.6 million contract it has with First Student this year, the district is contracting with an additional company to provide more bus drivers for routes serving students with disabilities. It is also using taxicabs — the costs of which are not reimbursed by the state — and charter buses.
Three district officials did not respond to a Monday afternoon email seeking comment.
As of late last month, 339 bus drivers serviced the district’s 369 routes, according to Greg Newman, the company’s Seattle-area manager. Kemper said 40 new candidates are in various stages of the company’s application process. Ideally, Newman said, there would be a driver for each route plus some additional drivers to cover absences.
Meanwhile, parents around the city are mobilizing for carpools, making daily calls to the district’s transportation department and wondering when the delays will end.
For some, the disruption isn’t new. But this year and last year brought new lows.
“I’ve had issues with the buses since kindergarten year,” said Central District parent Jennifer Stewart, whose daughter is in fourth grade at TOPS K-8 School in Eastlake. The delays worsened in fall 2017 after the district reduced the number of different morning bell times from three to two, she said.
Removing the later bell time, 9:35 a.m., meant drivers weren’t able to pick up an additional route in the morning. Both Newman and the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, Pegi McEvoy, have said that the change has contributed to some of the delays.
Stewart said her situation has improved — the company found a reliable driver for her daughter’s bus route this year. But just a few days ago, she went to pick her daughter up a few hours after school ended, and spotted some kids lingering around the building.
They were waiting for the bus.