Update: Over the 2017-2018 school year, Seattle Public Schools contract with First Students Transporation was for a whopping $29,637,160. This contract is good through 2020 with an option to extend.
Last Thursday, parents at TOPS, a kindergarten through 8th grade school in Eastlake, received a message. In an email, they were informed by the school that three buses—the 573, 576, and 578 routes—were going to be an hour late in both the morning and the afternoon. For the foreseeable future.
The message was not unexpected.
Kevin Oshikawa-Clay, a parent at TOPS, told me in an interview that over the three years he's had a child in Seattle public schools, he regularly gets emails or robo calls informing him that his daughter's bus will be anywhere between 60 minutes and two hours late.
As KOMO reported this week, this problem is not limited to TOPS. All over the district, a shortage of school bus drivers has led to long waits for kids and their parents—and schools don't generally excuse tardiness if buses are late. Like many parents, Oshikawa-Clay or his wife often have to rearrange their schedules to get their daughter to school on time. Those kids whose parents can't rework their schedules or make other arrangements are left at the bus stop, waiting.
"In the past two years I've probably used close to a 100 hours of vacation time because of this," Oshikawa-Clay told me. "It affects everything. This isn't the 1950s where you have one parent at home. My wife has to work on the weekends to make up for lost wages."
It's also difficult on their daughter. One afternoon in kindergarten, she was almost two hours late getting home on the bus. "A kindergartner doesn't have a phone," her dad told me. "When she got off the bus, she was crying, had a headache, and promptly threw up."
Another parent told me that when the buses do have drivers, they're often inadequately trained and don't know the routes. They even ask the kids for directions. At one point, this parent's 6-year-old son was dropped off on a random corner and had to get help finding his way home from an older student. A parent of a special ed student at Stevens Elementary in Capitol Hill told me that her son's bus has only arrived on time once since the fall term started. "It's very stressful," she said. "School is very difficult for him anyway. He thrives on routine and regularity and he is singled out every day for walking in late. He misses times with peers and the regular morning routine. It's stressful for him not to be with everyone else."
As KOMO reported, Seattle Public School buses are run not by the district itself, but by First Student Transportation, a multinational corporation and the largest privately-run school bus provider in North America. First Student, according to the company, has over 50,000 employees across 1,000 school districts. The company (which did not return request for comment) claims that they are currently training dozens of drivers to address the shortage in Seattle, but this problem isn't just local. All over the U.S., First Student's inadequate staffing has led to long waits for students.
In addition to the shortage of drivers, First Student has contract disputes with unions in the U.S. and Canada, including here: Last March, Teamsters Local 174—the local school bus drivers' union—went on a week-long strike after contract negotiations with the company failed. "On the picket lines," according to the Seattle Times, "bus drivers told stories of having to declare bankruptcy, pay for expensive medication out of pocket or live paycheck to paycheck because their health-care plan was unaffordable or they couldn’t get enough hours to be considered a full-time employee."
According to a notice posted on the Seattle Public Schools website, First Student has agreed to "a significant salary increase for beginning drivers," which may help alleviate the bus driver shortage. Still, this problem isn't a recent one: Oshikawa-Clay says his daughter has dealt with tardy buses for three years.
How much is Seattle Public Schools (and taxpayers) paying First Transportation for this service? Over the 2017-2018 year, nearly $30 million. Until this clusterfuck is resolved, SPS is providing students with Orca cards, keeping more staff on hand to deal with students waiting for delayed buses in the afternoon, and convening a task force to explore more solutions to the problem.
This doesn't, however, help Kevin Oshikawa-Clay and other parents. "It's not ok," he said. "I went to Seattle Public Schools from kindergarten through high school and we never had issues with this." Of course, at that time, they also didn't have First Student Transportation.