Problems with late pick ups lead Shawnee Mission to part ways with First Student, hire DS Bus Lines as new contractor

First Student employees wore their safety vests as they packed the school board chambers ahead of Monday's vote.
First Student employees wore their safety vests as they packed the school board chambers ahead of Monday’s vote.

Citing persistent issues with late pick ups and a failure to properly document safety training exercises, among other issues, the Shawnee Mission School District on Monday moved to part ways with longtime bus contractor First Student — even though that company entered the lowest bid in the district’s recent call for proposals.

The school board chamber was packed Monday with nearly 100 First Student drivers, who wore the company’s bright yellow safety vests and listened on as managers lobbied the board of education to continue using their services during the public hearing.

But Assistant Superintendent Rick Atha said his office was recommending accepting the bid of DS Bus Lines, Inc., out of Edwardsville, Kan., over First Student largely on account of service issues First Student had been unable to satisfactorily address. Atha said the district had documented at least 618 instances of buses arriving late this school year. In 114 of those instances, the buses were more than 20 minutes overdue. What’s more, the company failed to pick up and deliver the SM North Strolling Strings group to the 2015 Regional Teacher of the Year Awards Banquet at the Overland Park Marriott.

“These students were the schedule entertainment for the evening,” Atha said. “It was an embarrassment for the school, district, school board and administration. More importantly, our students missed an opportunity to perform and demonstrate their skills to our community and regional area.”

Despite the fact that DS Bus Lines’ proposal for five years of service came in nearly $573,000 more than First Student’s bid, Atha said the district administration believed it would be better served by switching providers.

“The board of education specifically reserved the right to consider all relevant and reasonable criteria in selecting a proposer,” Atha said. “The district carefully considered its experience with First Student. That experience weighed heavily in favor of transitioning to a different vendor.”

DS Bus Lines served as Shawnee Mission’s primary bus contractor from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Atha said that “checking references at that time, we learned that services were impeccable” when DS Bus Lines provided the service.

The school board voted 7-0 to award the contract to DS Bus Lines. They will begin providing service to the district this fall.

Relations between First Student and the district appeared to sour last year after the company requested an unscheduled $800,000 increase in payments from the district for service for the 2016-17 school year, saying it needed the additional money to hire more drivers to fully staff its routes.

A chart from the district summarizing the bids for the bus contract is below. (Click it to enlarge):