School buses are parked at the First Student North Lot at 4141 N. Seneca. (2016) Jaime Green File photo
School buses are parked at the First Student North Lot at 4141 N. Seneca. (2016) Jaime Green File photo

Education

Wichita district to pay more for bus service under renegotiation

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

July 05, 2017 06:42 AM

UPDATED July 05, 2017 06:59 AM

The Wichita school district will save money on busing this year compared to two years ago, but it won’t be as much as officials had hoped when they shortened the school calendar.

A new agreement with First Student, a Cincinnati-based private company that provides bus service for Wichita schools, increased the daily rate for buses based on the district’s shortened calendar.

The contract extension, set to begin Aug. 1, raises rates by 2 percent next school year if the district sticks with its shortened, 158-day calendar. If the district were to revert to the previous 173-day school year, the increase would be 1 percent.

An exact dollar figure for the increase is not yet known, school officials said.

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The new agreement also retroactively waives any damages owed to the district for substandard service during the past school year, including late buses, staffing shortages, equipment failure or poor response times.

It’s unclear how much the district would have collected in damages, district officials said. According to the contract, damages range from $100 per incident for a late bus to $2,000 for failing to check for children left on the bus after a run.

Mike Rodee, a school board member who voted against a slate of items that included the transportation contract, said he didn’t agree with the contract but opted not to discuss his concerns publicly at the board table.

In an interview after the vote, he called the contract “a bad precedent” and said he was “against the addition of extra money” beyond the district’s previous agreement with First Student.

“I don’t think we should be rewriting contracts midstream. … I can’t renegotiate my contracts,” said Rodee, who owns South Central Sealing & Paving.

I don’t think we should be rewriting contracts midstream. … I can’t renegotiate my contracts.

Mike Rodee, Wichita school board member

“But we’re going to get kids to school on a bus. We need to do that, and it’s important. So it is what it is.”

Eighth year of contract

Wichita launched its contract with First Student, the nation’s largest bus company, in 2010, following 14 years with Durham School Services. Officials said at the time that both companies proposed the same overall cost, but First Student offered better bus safety and tracking.

The original contract was for seven years, with an option for three one-year extensions.

“We have been proud to serve the community the past seven years and are pleased the district extended its contract with us,” said Jen Biddinger, spokeswoman for First Student.

“We certainly recognize our responsibility to maintain a valuable service. A lot of people rely on us every day, including our school district partner, parents and employees.”

Five of the past seven years, the district and First Student have renegotiated parts of the original contract, including rates, said Darren Muci, director of operations for the Wichita district.

In 2015, for example, the district launched a program using bus drivers as part-time custodians at several elementary schools, which was included in that year’s agreement.

Muci said the latest change to the contract reduces potential savings from the shortened calendar but is not sure by how much. Total expenses for the current contract year, which ends July 31, have not been finalized, he said.

Overall, the district expects to pay $23.5 million to First Student for bus service during the 2017-18 school year, compared with about $26 million two years ago, Muci said. That cost does not include fuel.

“Our focus is always, always on providing the safe transportation of our students to their assigned schools, and First Student has provided those services in an effective manner during the past seven years,” he said.

‘It’s a mess’

A few years ago, however, a nationwide bus driver shortage began affecting First Student and the Wichita district, with families reporting more frequent delays, missed pickups, late drop-offs and other issues.

Cassi Floyd, whose children attend Christa McAuliffe Academy in southeast Wichita, said bus problems were a huge frustration for her family this past school year.

“I could count on one hand, probably, the amount of times our bus has shown up on time,” Floyd said.

There was no driver assigned permanently to her children’s route for nearly half the school year, she said. Substitute drivers “were just thrown into it” with little knowledge of the route, she said.

Sometimes buses were overcrowded, with children sitting three to a seat and others on the floor, she said. Several times throughout the year, her seventh-grader and second-grader would arrive at school after the morning bell.

With as much money as we spend on busing and as much as money is an issue in our schools right now, they have got to get a handle on this thing, because it’s a mess.

Cassi Floyd, mother of two Wichita students

“I don’t leave my house until my kids are on the bus, so if that means I’m late to work, I’m just late to work,” said Floyd, a hairdresser. “My clients are very understanding, but it’s not a good situation for anybody.

“With as much money as we spend on busing and as much as money is an issue in our schools right now, they have got to get a handle on this thing, because it’s a mess.”

Pay boost for drivers

Biddinger, the First Student spokeswoman, said the company plans to earmark much of its rate increase toward boosting wages in an effort to recruit more drivers.

The starting wage for bus drivers will go from $13.25 an hour to $14.20 an hour this year, she said.

“We are hopeful that this contract extension, which raises wages, will help with driver retention and recruitment,” Beddinger said.

The starting wage for First Student bus drivers will go from $13.25 an hour to $14.20 an hour this year.

“We’re focused heavily on recruiting, with a series of hiring events planned throughout the summer,” she said. “We’re definitely looking for members of the community who are interested in driving a bus to consider that.”

The next hiring event in Wichita will be the week of July 10, she said. In the meantime, people interested in driving a school bus can apply online at https://apply.firstgroupcareers.com.

The Wichita district spends a significant chunk of its $662 million budget on transportation and fuel. About 17,000 students ride buses to and from school, at a total cost of about $200,000 a day.

Last spring, when officials began talking about shortening the school year, they estimated saving at least $3 million in transportation, utilities and other expenses.

Muci, the district’s operations director, said the transportation picture can change week to week and even day to day, as students move or attend different schools for magnet programs, special education or other reasons.

By consolidating routes and reducing transportation for extracurricular activities, the district hopes to keep costs down without affecting too many students and families, Muci said. But the shortage of drivers adds another wrinkle.

“There is not a city you could visit that you would not find a sign or a billboard or something that says, ‘We need bus drivers,’ ” he said.

“That’s an ongoing challenge for us and for every school district in the United States.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias