The district and its school-bus contractor, First Student, have implemented a few stopgap measures in the last week to help mitigate a bus-driver shortage.
About 339 school-bus drivers in Seattle got a raise this week in one of the latest efforts by Seattle Public Schools and its bus contractor, First Student, to triage a driver shortage that has caused delays of up to two hours.
The delays have slowed buses headed to neighborhoods and schools all over the city.
On Saturday, the drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 174, voted to raise their minimum hourly pay from $18 to $22, effective Monday. The memorandum of understanding they ratified also raises the maximum pay from $25 to $26, and awards raises to all the drivers.
“Doing nothing was not an option for us,” said Greg Newman, who manages First Student operations for Washington and Alaska. “We’ve had a jump in interest [from potential drivers] already.”
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About 12,000 Seattle students depend on buses to get to school every day. In general, the district guarantees yellow-bus service for elementary- and middle-school students who aren’t within walking distance to school, though the rules vary.
The raise, which the company provided only to drivers in Seattle, according to Newman, is supposed to help recruit and retain drivers for each of the city’s 369 school-bus routes. The goal is to ultimately employ around 405 drivers, a force that would cover any driver absences. One cause of the shortage this year, among other factors, is the high turnover among bus drivers: About 75 of them quit their posts in Seattle over the summer, most likely to take higher-paying jobs, said Newman.
The company, Newman said, has been calling ex-employees to notify them about the new pay raises, and offering up to $3,000 in signing bonuses. Around 50 drivers are in various stages of the company’s training process, which involves classes and tests in safety; they’re also working on obtaining a commercial driver’s license with a school-bus endorsement.
Last week, amid a barrage of emails and calls that flooded the inboxes of the district’s transportation department, top officials and School Board members, the district announced a number of stopgap measures to solve the problem — at least until the shortage clears up, likely in October.
In addition to the $29.6 million contract it has with First Student this year, the district is contracting with American Logistics Company to ensure it has 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.
Pegi McEvoy, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, said she did not have an estimate for how much these additional services would cost, but added that the district would likely ask First Student to help foot the bill. Seattle Public Schools attorneys are still negotiating with First Student about lapses in service that happened months ago when school-bus drivers struck for eight days, said McEvoy.
First Student has provided bus service for Seattle students since the early 1970s, though not always exclusively. It was the only company that put in a bid for bus service two years ago. The district has not had its own fleet of buses since the early 20th century, according to McEvoy.
In an interview Monday, Superintendent Denise Juneau said she was frustrated and sought more efficient ways to get students to school in the future. When asked if she would reconsider renewing the three-year contract, which expires in 2019-2020, she said: “Once I get a better handle on these issues, we’ll see.”