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Tuesday, November 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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School district revs up idea of having own bus service

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle School Board is considering bringing student bus service in-house — an additional $6 million annual expense that would bring driver salaries and benefits in line with surrounding districts'.

The board's Operations Committee will consider the proposal this afternoon.

The district has been contracting for bus service since the 1970s, so providing it would mean starting from scratch: hiring about 400 drivers, buying buses and leasing land for a bus barn. A district study said it would cost an additional $62.9 million over the next 10 years, raising the cost over the decade to $148.9 million from $86 million.

Supporters of the idea say it would improve working conditions and benefits for drivers, which in turn could lower driver turnover and improve services for students.

But opponents say this isn't the time to devote more money to transportation. The district has been struggling for months to save $2.5 million a year by closing seven schools.

"I've been opposed to it from the outset," said board member Michael DeBell, who serves on the Operations Committee along with members Mary Bass and Irene Stewart. "Obviously, we're not in a position to spend significantly more money on our busing, our transportation costs. ... I believe that it's in the best interest of the district to save money wherever possible outside of classroom instruction."

Most surrounding school districts provide their own bus service. Seattle contracts with Laidlaw Transportation Services and First Student.

District buses?


The Seattle School Board Operations Committee will discuss bus-service options at its meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. today at school-district headquarters, 2445 Third Ave. S. In addition to discussing the contracts with Laidlaw Transportation Services and First Student, the committee will hear a report on a pilot program that placed Ballard and Franklin high-school students on Metro buses this school year.

The School Board has discussed for several years bringing yellow-bus service in-house. In 2005, three board members — Stewart, Bass and Sally Soriano — voted against the current bus contract because of concerns over wages and benefits for the 400 drivers involved. That contract expires in June. Laidlaw employs about 80 of the district's drivers, and First Student employs the remainder.

Soriano said the Portland School District decreased its driver turnover to single digits by switching from contracted bus service to directly hired drivers to transport its special-education students. It's the responsibility of the board to try to improve the stability of the district's work force, she said.

"The overarching issue is that the board has tried to get the drivers to have it be a stable work environment," she said.

Stewart and Bass, who chairs the Operations Committee, did not return calls seeking comment.

Laidlaw drivers voted to join the Teamsters in May. Since then, they've been in contract negotiations. First Student drivers are not organized, though Teamsters Local 174 business agent Chuck Deaver said there's an effort under way.

Laidlaw drivers are treated "very well," said Betty Zaloudek-Moore, the Seattle branch manager. "I think this is a very positive work environment. Our drivers work very hard."

The committee also will consider providing district-operated transportation for its special-education students. That would cost about $12 million over 10 years.

"I think the idea of in-housing the transportation goes beyond the treatment of the drivers," said Robert Augustin, a Laidlaw driver who has been driving Seattle district buses for eight years and supports the proposal. "From the board standpoint, they think they can save some money in the long run."

If the district employed bus drivers directly, driver salaries would increase about 30 percent to about $17.25 an hour — the average rate for districts around Seattle — according to a school-district analysis.

The analysis also showed it would lose money for at least 20 years because of the ongoing cost of replacing buses.

District drivers would have the opportunity to unionize, said Chief Operating Officer Mark Green. Teamsters Local 174 represents some other drivers who work for the district.

The district hired a consultant to survey bus drivers and found 77 percent were satisfied with their jobs. The same survey found high parent satisfaction: Only 13 percent said they were dissatisfied.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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