The company now awaits approval of its settlement with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission staff. - File photo.

The company now awaits approval of its settlement with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission staff.

File photo.

Staff working for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission have announced a settlement with student transportation provider First Student Inc.

“Working hard with the Washington UTC to address the issues initially found in their report, we’ve reached a principal settlement and addressed all of their concerns promptly and thoroughly,” said Scott Gulbransen, senior director of communications for FirstGroup America. “We were able to correct most of the issues immediately and, with the UTC’s acceptance of our work, maintained our satisfactory rating – the highest possible.”

The settlement, if approved by an administrative law judge, would resolve a complaint the UTC filed against Ohio-based First Student in February for safety violations. Under the agreement:

  • First Student admits to 396 violations identified by UTC staff.
  • The company agrees to a penalty of $188,000, with $68,000 due immediately. However, the remaining $120,000 would be suspended for three years and could be entirely waived if First Student commits no critical or acute violations during that period.
  • The company also would pay a previously suspended $10,000 penalty due to repeated violations.
  • First Student agrees to provide quarterly reporting for 18 months to the UTC about its corrective action plan.

In a response to the UTC’s complaint, First Student addressed several issues, including:

  • Shortcomings in recordkeeping by a third-party administrator handling random drug tests of school bus drivers. “Despite some confusion and the extraordinary situation brought on by the global pandemic and the shutdown of operations for a time, we continue with the established process to ensure compliance,” the response stated.
  • New-hire drug tests for employees laid off during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. First Student noted that some employees were removed from the random drug and alcohol testing pool before they returned to work and thus required re-testing. “It is important to note, though, that once rehired, they were immediately placed back into the random testing pool,” the response stated.
  • Premature sign-off of annual review prior to receipt of a motor vehicle report. “First Student has implemented extensive training to ensure that this does not recur and that motor vehicle records are reviewed prior to signing off on annual reviews,” the response stated.
  • Failure to maintain a copy of a driver motor vehicle record in driver qualification files. “After submitting the complete files to the UTC, we began a comprehensive review of our administrative function,” the response stated. “We have implemented new processes and enhanced our training procedures.”

“First Student does not hold any of these violations as spurious or unimportant – quite the contrary,” the statement said.

Added Gulbransen: “We’ve been a community partner in Washington state for over 20 years and we’re happy to continue to provide safe and reliable transportation to schools and others in those communities.”

The three-member commission isn’t bound by the staff’s agreement and the settlement still awaits review by an administrative law judge. The UTC regulates only charter services provided by First Student and not daily transportation to and from school.

In March 2019, the UTC issued a $23,700 penalty assessment against First Student over violations of vehicle and driver safety requirements. The company paid $13,700 and provided a corrective action plan, after which the UTC conditionally suspended the remaining $10,000 penalty.

In January 2022, as School Bus Fleet previously reported, UTC staff followed-up with their investigation and found hundreds of safety violations, “including critical, acute, out-of-service, and repeat violations,” and sought up to $396,000 in penalties, according to a news release.

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