(Updated at 10:11 pm on Oct. 26, 2018, to add that Seattle Public Schools has reached an agreement with Durham Bus Service to add 15 extra buses.)
Almost two months into the school year, parents in Seattle say there are still a lot of problems with school bus service. On Friday morning, the school district said on its website that 38 buses were late and 11 of them were delayed by two hours. A district spokesman said that number of bus delays is not unusual right now.
Late Friday afternoon, the school district said in a press release that it will bring on an additional 15 school buses starting Monday. The buses will be provided by Durham Bus Service, a separate company from First Student, which holds the contract to provide yellow bus service for Seattle Public Schools.
“I am frustrated that the start of school hasn’t been smooth for all of our students and families," Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau said in the statement. "Our students deserve timely, predictable transportation to and from school.”
But timely, predictable transportation is what many parents say they haven't received. Paul Rambo received notice Friday morning that the bus for his younger son, who’s a fourth grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, was delayed by an hour. He said that’s become a standard occurrence.
“It’s been about an hour late both directions nearly 100 percent of the time,” Rambo said. “I think there were two days this year that the bus was on time.”
His older son is an eighth grader at TOPS K-8 in the Eastlake neighborhood. Rambo said that bus has been “roughly an hour late about 20 percent of the time.”
So Rambo said he's moved to plan B, a carpool with neighbors, because otherwise his kids would be missing a lot of school time.
Parents have banded together on Facebook to share stories and push for improvements. One mother said in an email to KNKX that she had to miss so much time from work in order to take her daughter to school and pick her up that she nearly lost her job.
In its statement, the school district said it's prioritized bus service to high-poverty schools and to children in special education. It also has hired a special education transportation contractor to expand service and provided additional ORCA transit cards to secondary students where needed.
The bus contractor, First Student, has been struggling with a shortage of drivers. Company spokesman Chris Kemper said this is a nationwide problem.
“While it’s a challenge nationwide, it’s more acute in places like Seattle, where the economy is robust and unemployment is low,” he said.
He said the company is in the process of training more drivers and recently raised starting pay to $22 an hour from $18. The company is also paying a sign-on bonus of $3,000, Kemper said.
Bus drivers for First Student went on strike earlier this year for more than a week as they pushed for better health insurance and benefits. The company and the drivers’ union, Teamsters 174, reached an agreement in February. But Kemper said the company had higher-than-expected attrition over the summer.
First Student is the only bus company that submitted a bid for the contract with Seattle Public Schools.
“There are no penalties being levied to First Student,” Tim Robinson, a spokesman for Seattle Public Schools, said in an emailed statement. “The contract does give SPS contractual discretion to seek them. Both First Student and SPS continue to improve the on-time performance.”
In an interview in late September, Superintendent Denise Juneau said that improving transportation service is one of her top priorities.
“I just really want to apologize to the families out there that are struggling with this issue," Juneau said. "We promote the idea of attendance matters to schools and to learning and for us to be failing on that front is not acceptable.”