After a bus driver strike in February left Seattle Public Schools with a transportation headache, the district's board of directors contracted with a second bus company to provide a more reliable option for students.

Students who rely on classic yellow buses to take them to class were stuck waiting longer than usual this fall, and were sometimes late to class at the beginning of the year.

“I am frustrated that the start of school hasn’t been smooth for all of our students and families,” SPS superintendent Denise Juneau stated in a SPS news release. “Our students deserve timely, predictable transportation to and from school.”

SPS contracts with First Student to take children to and from school in yellow buses, prioritizing students who attend Title I schools. Students can also receive ORCA cards to take Metro buses to class.

Bus drivers went on strike for eight days in February during contract negotiations. An agreement was made after the strike, but not every bus driver came back to work for SPS.

“The agreement was supposed to ensure sufficient bus drivers,” according to the SPS news release. “Although First Student had sufficient drivers at the end of last school year, many drivers did not return this school year, and bus routes have been inconsistent since the start of school.”

A contract between SPS and Durham Bus Service to bring an additional 15 buses to SPS was introduced during a board of directors on Nov. 14. The new buses were sent out on Oct. 29.

In addition to the new buses, SPS also took a few additional steps to ease the transition:

• The SPS transportation department will continue to prioritize yellow bus service to Title I schools and for special education students.

• SPS has subcontracted with a special education transportation contractor to expand services.

• Additional ORCA cards have been provided to secondary students when requested by schools or families.

• The transportation department convened a Transportation Task Force that includes transportation and school professionals, parents and community members.

During the Nov. 14 meeting, the board considered approving the contract, which would allow Juneau to sign and execute the contract between SPS and Durham Bus Services.

Since the addition of 15 buses, on-time rates rose from 88 percent of buses to more than 90 percent.

SPS board president Leslie Harris said the district is keeping track of every late bus and other transportation issues, and SPS is notifying First Student of the issues. Even so, Harris lamented the district’s full agenda and made it clear creating an SPS-exclusive bus service would be too costly and time consuming.

“We can barely afford to pay our teachers, and correct me if I’m in correct, but we have never had our own bus league,” Harris said. “And an outlay of capital costs to buy the buses, to maintain the buses, to depreciate the buses, to hire people in a part-time split shift basis, we have plenty on our plate already.”

If SPS wanted to maintain its own bus league, it would cost a few million to start. A regular school bus costs $150,000 on average, and SPS would need to buy 300 buses to serve its students. This doesn’t include the cost to find space to store the buses and yearly maintenance of the buses.

“Worse than just the money, however, is needing to buy 300 buses in one year,” said deputy superintendent Stephen Nielsen. “It’s just impossible.”

Double levies in February

During the meeting, board members and Juneau thanked voters for passing a recent levy measure during the midterms.

The board of directors will place two other levy measures on the ballot in February.

Every three years SPS asks Seattle voters to renew two levies: the Operations Levy, also called the Educational Programs and Operations Levy, and the Building Excellence V Capital Levy (BEX V).

SPS is staying busy this year with proposed boundary changes and school construction, such as the revamped Magnolia Elementary.

According to levy information posted on the district website, the operations levy would:

• Fund day-to-day school operations, such as additional school staff beyond what the state allocates.

• Help pay for instructional materials and textbooks.

• Provide funds for special education to ensure the 7,000 students who need special education services have necessary support.

• Help close the opportunity gaps by continuing to provide programs to support our most vulnerable students.

The BEX V Capital Levy will fund:

• Safety and security measures at schools across the district.

• A reduction in the number of portable classrooms.

• More classrooms in schools.

• Improved technology infrastructure in SPS schools.

• Access to additional technology in the classroom.

SPS's levy information states the two proposed levies will fill gaps left after state funding is received, even after the McCleary decision.

“The state provides funding for just nine school nurses (for all 53,000 students), but the district employs 63,” the district's website states. “The state funds 115 school counselors, but the district employs 125. The state funds 236 custodians, but the district employs 312.”

Earlier this month Seattle voters approved Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Seattle Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy. More than half of the funds will be used to invest in preschool education while also improving K-12 health programs.

In other news

A collective bargaining agreement between SPS, the Seattle Education Association and Seattle Association of Educational Office Employees was ratified at the Nov. 14 board meeting. The agreement lays out contract terms for SPS’s paraprofessionals, non-supervisory employees and office professionals.