After two years of tumultuous transportation, including a driver strike and significant delays, Seattle Public Schools will get $562,540 in damages and more accountability measures from its primary school-bus contractor, First Student. The Seattle School Board approved the agreement unanimously Wednesday evening.
The money is a drop in the bucket for the district, whose three-year contract with First Student is worth about $90 million. Inconsistent service from the carrier required the district to spend millions supplementing service from other companies, including $1.5 million in payments to Tacoma-based bus company Durham School Services.
The district still agreed to the terms of the settlement anyway because “it will allow the parties to focus on working together to continue improvements in bus service for students while avoiding the uncertainty and cost of litigation,” according to the agreement.
The agreement also extended the district’s contract with the provider for another school year, despite many families calling on the district to terminate its contract with the company following years of failure to provide on-time and consistent bus service so severe that some children missed entire weeks at school or were put at risk, according to a Seattle Times investigation published in September.
In an interview with the Times last spring, Superintendent Denise Juneau hesitated to say whether should she would terminate a contract with the carrier, pointing to the difficulty of finding another company to provide the services.
“They’re the only game in town right now,” said Juneau.
An early 2019 audit found that district’s process to attract other bidders for the transportation contract was deficient.
Extending the lifetime of the 2017 contract — initially set to expire at the end of this school year — will allow time for the district to develop “new and innovative ways of providing student transportation,” according to the agreement.
The district did not make any staff available for an interview.
“The Agreement between SPS and First Student is an important step to improving yellow bus service,” the district said in an email.
In a statement, First Student echoed the sentiment: “This marks a new chapter in our relationship and the best path forward to provide safe and reliable service.”
The district also agreed to pay up to $11 million more over the next two years to cover the cost of First Student continuing to increase pay for drivers, one way to attract and retain drivers. Many of the delays in the last two years were the result of a nationwide school-bus driver shortage, causing thousands of routes to be delayed by more than an hour or canceled completely as existing drivers took on more than one route.
A consolidation of the school start and end times in fall 2017 made the shortage more acute — drivers could only manage one route without severely delaying the next, which meant the district’s contractor needed many more drivers.
Last fall, the company increased the range of driver pay from $18-25 to $22-$25. This contract gives an immediate raise of $2 an hour for all drivers, and bumps up the starting wage by a dollar in August 2020.
Dozens of First Student drivers traveled via yellow bus to the meeting in support of the contract, cheering and hollering as the board voted to approve it. They said that they often see their coworkers leave for other transportation companies offering better pay. School-bus drivers typically don’t get paid for eight hours of work, and their schedules include hours of unpaid time in between morning and afternoon service that can make it hard to take a second job.
“We are bleeding out to other companies,” said Cyril Hilton, a First Student driver.
In the year he’s been at the company, he said he’s seen new management take a more aggressive approach to recruiting and training that’s paid off. Recruiters he met outside a grocery store enticed him to come out of retirement.
“Even if they booted First Student, another company would still have the same problems,” said Hilton, adding that driving on Seattle’s streets in a school bus poses a particular challenge.
Negotiations for this agreement began two years ago, after First Student drivers in Seattle struck for eight days for better health benefits. At the time, the district had originally threatened seek $1.2 million each day of lost service from the company. Delays stemming from the labor shortage of the last two years were added to these discussions.
Approval of this contract essentially means a clean slate for the relationship between the district and First Student and requires these changes:
- A switch to an incentive-based pay system, which means that instead of the current system that involves seeking damages for poor performance, the district can adjust payment to First Student based on its timeliness and safety performance;
- A bus-tracking app for families provided by First Student;
- Elimination of a contractual requirement that First Student be the district’s primary transportation provider.