Seattle could be missing the bus on a new bus company. seanami / GETTY

On Tuesday afternoon, Zūm, one of the two bus companies trying to land a fatty transportation contract with Seattle Public Schools (SPS), accused the district of badly messing up its evaluation process, resulting in SPS "arbitrarily and improperly" signaling its intent to award the contract to First Student for the second time this year.

In the company's May 2 bid protest letter to the district, Zūm attorney Daniel Suvor argued that the district's nod "ignores the fact that accepting Zūm’s bid would save SPS $7 million over the course of the contract." Accounting for those savings, he argued, would have put the company seven points ahead of First Student rather than five points behind it according to the district's scoring rubric. He also accused the district of running a proposal process "marked by arbitrary delays, arbitrary scoring decisions, and an apparent bias towards First Student, despite a laundry list of safety violations and complaints against" the company.

Earlier this year, the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission found that First Student's charter bus service, which takes kids on field trips and stuff, committed more than 600 safety and procedure violations. "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 Seattle Times analysis of the complaint. A couple months ago the company settled for "a fraction" of the fines to which it was subject.

Switching bus providers would present a huge logistical challenge for the district, and the longer it takes to make a decision, the harder it would be to make the switch before school starts in September. To support its allegations of "delay," Zūm points to the timeline. The district first issued a request for proposals in October of 2021, and then initially awarded the contract to First Student two months after its December deadline. Shortly after Zūm protested that decision, in February the state cited First Student with all those safety violations. The district then shut down the bidding process while claiming the state accusations were unrelated to that decision. But when it restarted the process in March of this year, a new question on the application asked prospects about any recent run-ins with state or federal regulators. A week after First Student settled with state regulators, the district asked for final bids from both contractors, and then more than a week later announced its intent to go with First Student.

In a May 4 counter-protest letter, First Student lawyer Traeger Machetanz described Zūm's claims as "entirely without merit" and said the company's protest amounts to "a misunderstanding of procurement guidelines and the discretion afforded SPS by the terms of the RFP."

First Student spokesperson Scott Gulbransen said the company "is committed to following and respecting the process set forth by the Seattle Schools" and remains "focused and committed to serving the Seattle Public Schools and its families as we have for 30 years."

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson declined to comment on the bus contract because it "first needs to be completed and approved by the board."

But the state's long list of safety violations against First Student, Zūm's list of complaints about the district, and the drawn-out proposal process have raised suspicion among some parents with kids in the district.

Robert Cruickshank, an education advocate who serves on the board of Washington’s Paramount Duty, called on Seattle School Board directors to investigate the matter. "I think it's extremely concerning ... to see reports that SPS has mishandled the bidding process," he said.

District 5 School Board Director Michelle Sarju declined to comment due to ongoing "legal proceedings."

Cruickshank tied this bus contracting issue to financial problems plaguing the district's larger transportations services plan, which have led officials to propose a controversial change to bell times that would require fewer bus drivers but create three start times (rather than the current two) across different grades, forcing kids into classes earlier. The district has since "slowed" this proposal.

Though he doesn't know enough about Zūm as a company to form an opinion about its merits, he said "student safety has to be top priority, and it's really clear that First Student is not going to be able to get that done."

Beth Raas-Bergquist, a parent from Greenwood with a kid at Viewlands Elementary, didn't even know the district was considering another bus provider, but she knows her experience with First Student has been less than ideal.

In the winter of 2019, she said a First Student bus driver dropped off her kid and about 20 others in the snow in front of a nail salon about a mile away from North Seattle Boys and Girls Club, which was the bus' intended destination. After the driver let them off, the "big kids" on the bus — 4th and 5th-graders — led the little troupe up to the club, whose staff was "appalled" to learn the news, Raas-Bergquist said. When she finally got ahold of First Student, she said a representative for the company told her she "should have known to pick up [her] kids in the snow," because the company didn't allow drivers to drive on icy roads.

"I don't know if they're better or worse or what," Raas-Bergquist said, referring to Zūm, "but now with four years of trying to navigate First Student, I'm certainly open to trying a different company."

First Student did not respond to a request for comment on that matter.

Raas-Bergquist could be forgiven for not knowing about the existence of another school bus company. First Student is the largest bus contracting firm in the country, and it has run the buses for SPS for 30 years. When the district cut more than 140 routes last year because the company failed to hired enough drivers, Fred Podesta, the district's operations officer, told The Seattle Times that SPS couldn't enforce a contract provision to make First Student pay for another company to fill the gaps "because there isn’t anybody else.”

Perhaps after seeing an opening in a market dominated by one company, tech executive Ritu Narayan founded Zūm in 2015. Last year the company started running buses for San Francisco's Unified School District, serving "around 3,500 students across 150 campuses." It also picked up a contract running buses for special education students in Oakland, according to the San Francisco Business Times. This year, the company will also take over a bus contract for Los Angeles School District, the second-largest district in the country. On its website, the company boasts "custom technology" to optimize routes and to allow parents to track students on buses.

If it makes the agenda, the school board could start discussion on the bus contract on May 18.

Correction: This piece originally stated that the school board was set to decide on the contract next week, but that's not right. The issue might be introduced next week, but board action wouldn't take place until the following meeting at the earliest.