The troubles that have plagued the Shawnee Mission School District’s bus service this year boil down to an inability to attract enough drivers to man the approximately 200 buses needed to transport the district’s students, district leaders said this week. And the solution to the problem is likely to compound the district’s already tricky financial considerations.
Deputy Superintendent Kenny Southwick told the Board of Education earlier this week that the administration had been in discussions for several months with bus service provider First Student about delayed and missed pickups that parents started complaining about shortly after the year began last fall. As of last week, Southwick said, First Student had 36 fewer drivers than it needed to man all of the routes required under the contract the district signed with the company in August 2014. Under that contract, the hourly wage for drivers serving Shawnee Mission students was $14. But as the unemployment rate in the state has dropped over the past two years, competition for the positions has increased.
“We’ve got a lot of people that would be driving the bus now that have sought other employment,” Southwick said.
First Student signed a new contract to serve the Olathe School District last year that pays drivers more than $16 per hour, a figure that’s more in line with market rates throughout the metro.
“Anybody that wants to drive a bus can drive just a few miles down the road and can do that for a couple of dollars more per hour,” Southwick said.
Consequently, First Student has submitted a proposal that would increase the cost of service to the district for the coming year by approximately $1 million. All but $50,000 of that would go toward increased pay for the drivers, according to Southwick. The five-year contract the district signed two years ago included an annual cost increase of 2.5 percent. First Student is now requesting a 20 percent increase for the coming year and increases of more than 4 percent in the following years.
Southwick said the situation was far from ideal, but the timing made it all but impossible to put out a bid for a new service provider for 2016-2017.
“If we were in the position where we could have known in October what we know now, we probably would have bid it out and looked for another contractor,” Southwick said.
The administration is likely to present the board with a proposed revision to the existing contract at its May meeting.
“The district is currently evaluating First Student’s proposal for increases beyond those allowed in the contract along with quality of service and weighing the options regarding transportation services before making a determination as to how to proceed,” said district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal.