Washington state regulators found more than 600 safety and procedural violations by school bus carrier First Student in the past two years, dozens of which persisted for years after company officials were warned of the infractions.
The company repeatedly failed to screen drivers for drugs and alcohol, cleared employees to drive before they’d even completed an application for employment or a history of their driving records, provided false information on driver records and allowed some vehicles to continue running even when seats weren’t securely attached, according to a complaint from the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission.
First Student, which provides daily school bus and charter service in Seattle, Tacoma, Vashon Island and several other school districts in Washington state, could pay up to the maximum fine of $396,000, depending on the outcome of a hearing next month.
That the UTC sought the highest penalty amount under the law is “pretty unusual,” said Emilie Brown, a spokesperson for the UTC. The commission also downgraded the company’s safety rating from “satisfactory” to “conditional.”
If that rating is approved by the federal government and becomes permanent, the company will lose its ability to enter into bus-chartering contracts with school districts in Washington state.
First Student is one of two companies bidding on a three-year contract with Seattle Public Schools. The current contract is worth about $40 million a year.
During the time frame covered by the investigation, the company’s yearslong struggle to retain a full roster of drivers fell to new depths, forcing Seattle Public Schools to cut bus service for most of its students last fall. In past years, the Seattle campus sometimes was at times short nearly 100 drivers required to fully staff 400 school buses in Seattle.
“We were apprised of the UTC action this week and we are in the process of reviewing how it might impact our relationship with the district’s primary transportation vendor,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for the school district.
The more severe penalty follows a softer reprimand in 2019; the commission fined the company $23,700 for violations but suspended $10,000 of the penalty if the company could show it had moved into compliance.
The UTC only regulates the charter bus service provided by First Student, which includes field trips, athletics and special events. But in some locations, like Seattle, the company does use the same vehicles and employ the same drivers for daily school transportation, said Jamie Fleming, spokesperson for Teamsters Local 174, the union representing Seattle First Student drivers. Fleming said she wasn’t aware of the new violations before their public release.
The complaint is based on an investigation spanning all of the state’s First Student locations in Washington state. It is not clear which violations occurred in which locations.
Greg Newman, regional manager for First Student, did not respond to a request for comment. He is listed as the respondent of the UTC’s legal complaint and as the contact for the company’s bid on Seattle’s new school bus contract.
“First Student’s number one priority is always the safety and welfare of the students we transport. We are working with the WUTC to immediately address these findings to ensure our policies and procedures are reviewed and in compliance,” First Student spokesman Scott Gulbransen wrote in an email.
The company was also slow to provide investigators with documents, according to the investigation. Retrieving records pertinent to the commission’s query sometimes took several tries.
Most of the 364 violations counted in the penalty assessment are related to the company’s failure to conduct drug and alcohol screenings of drivers. Federal law requires the company to test no less than half of its workforce each year.
The UTC also found more than a dozen instances in which the company failed to keep copies of workers’ driving histories in other states. In three cases, the UTC found a First Student employee signed off on annual driver certification forms before obtaining the required driving histories.
The UTC regulates some other large companies, including Puget Sound Energy. But for its size and the industry, this is a significant fine, said Brown, the UTC spokesperson.
In 2016, the commission imposed and then partially waived a nearly $180,000 fine against Professional Transportation. Two years ago, the the commission fined Standard Parking $13,000.