School starts tomorrow in Seattle and with it comes a big question — will school bus service in the state’s largest district be any better than last year?
The district's bus contractor had more than 4,000 delays or canceled routes. That made for a lot of stress for families, and it's something the district's new superintendent is trying to resolve.
Ronda Kimm is one of many parents who struggled with last year's delays. Her family lives in West Seattle. Her oldest daughter attends Lafayette Elementary, which is about 3 miles from their home. Every school day last year, Kimm braced for a robocall from the district.
“This is the Seattle Schools Transportation Department calling to let you know that route 637 to Lafayette Elementary School is running about two hours late this morning. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused your family.”
That wasn't just a one-time thing. Data from the school district show her daughter's bus was delayed by a total of 33 hours last school year. Kimm has three children, ages 2, 4 and 7. Every morning, she was trying to gauge if they should keep waiting for a bus that might never come or if she should pile all the kids into the car for what often would turn into a 40-minute round trip.
“As winter came on, we had snow, we had rain, and we were all standing out there huddled and cold, and I have my three kids and all the other kids at the bus stop — it was super stressful,” she said.
And Kimm said she was troubled about the other kids waiting at the bus stop without their parents.
“They’re little, standing on the side of the road, and I’m hearing that the bus isn’t coming and then I don’t have any permission from their parents to take them to school, so they’re stranded,” she said. “I’m feeling like, `What do I do?’ They’re then walking back up the hill. I don’t know if their parents are there, if they’re going to be home alone.”
'LATE, LATE, LATE'
Kimm's daughter, Elena, is going into second grade. Elena said she likes to ride the bus, but not when it was “really late, late, late, late, late, late, late.”
When that would happen, she'd have to go to the office to get a late pass and enter class when it was already underway, sometimes having missed part of her math lesson.
“There was a lot of anxiety because being late to school is a big deal,” Ronda Kimm said.
District officials say they’ve been working to make transportation more reliable. The bulk of the delays happened last fall because the contractor, First Student, had a shortage of drivers. Data from the district show the number of delays and canceled routes peaked in October with 1,222 incidents, which includes delays of 15 minutes or more as well as canceled routes.
Amid an outcry from parents, the Seattle school district contracted with a second vendor, Durham School Services, to get 15 more buses. The number of delays and canceled routes began to drop, and by June, there were 129 delays and canceled routes.
And yet, while bus service showed some improvement, a report done for the school district by the Council of the Great City Schools found many problems in the district’s transportation department. The report described a dysfunctional department that "appears to lack a sense of urgency to change what seems to be embedded inertia."
It said the department had a top-down culture, in which employees felt unappreciated, and lacked communication between teams.
“It’s obviously been an area that has not been given the attention it deserves,” said Fred Podesta, chief operations officer for Seattle Public Schools.
Podesta said the district's new superintendent, Denise Juneau, is making dependable transportation a priority. He said the district is close to hiring a new transportation manager and that person will be higher up in the organizational chart.
“Superintendent Juneau certainly understands that all those operational things make teaching and learning possible. You need to be in class on time if you’re going to participate,” Podesta said. “And so, (she’s) really put a focus on it, as has the board.”
For example, the district’s new strategic plan says having predictable operational systems is a priority. And Podesta said the district has worked with First Student to make sure there are enough drivers this year. But he warned families that the start of the school year may still be bumpy.
“The challenge for Seattle Public Schools is we run this little transit company and it goes on hiatus for two months and then we start it up and put 365 buses on the road transporting more than 20,000 kids to 104 locations and all expect them to show up at a particular place in a 10-minute window — that’s a big task,” Podesta said. “And it’s a really big task the first day you’re doing it.”
Some parents already have experienced frustrations in the bus assignments for their children. Tasha Mosher has two children who ride the bus to Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle. This year, her kids were assigned to two separate school buses with different pickup locations even though they go to the same school.
The department changed it after she contacted them. And as school starts, Mosher said she understands there may be hiccups as drivers get accustomed to the routes. But she said she plans to take detailed notes and let the department know. Last year, even after repeated delays that sent her scrambling in the morning to drive her kids to school when the bus failed to arrive, Mosher refused to abandon school bus service entirely.
“I kind of held in the limbo because I don’t want to contribute to the congestion that happens at our school. There’s a lot of parents who have given up,” Mosher said. “I kept thinking we need to hold First Student and the school board responsible for resolving this issue, not jumping the boat altogether.”
Delayed school bus service has ripple effects that go beyond inconvenience. Pam Phillips has a son entering first grade at Lafayette Elementary, where he receives special-education services. He uses door-to-door bus service, but it was so unpredictable last year that Phillips often had to drive him herself.
But that was tough on her son, because it was harder for him to separate when she'd take him into the school compared to a bus drop off, Phillips said.
"He'd have an emotional meltdown, and I'm handing him off to an instructional aide," Phillips said. "It's not as easy a transition."
She remembers waiting outside her house one morning with him, then heading inside after getting a notification that the bus would be late, then heading outside again. She finally gave up and got in the car.
"He said, 'Why all this in and out and in and out?'" Phillips said. "For him it was frustrating."
Phillips said she likely will drive him to school this year, because she doesn't want to face that kind of uncertainty again.
Ronda Kimm said she's willing to give the school bus another try — for now. But she decided already that she’ll drive Elena to school on the first day.
“I don’t want her to miss out on the first day of meeting her teacher and meeting her classmates. That’s too important of a day to start off with being five minutes late or two hours late,” she said. “I can’t rely on the bus for that first day.”
Beyond that, she's hoping school bus service will be reliable. Families across Seattle are hoping the same thing.