The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved a settlement with First Student, including at least $68,000 in penalties.  -  Photo: First Student

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved a settlement with First Student, including at least $68,000 in penalties.

Photo: First Student

Seattle Public Schools transportation staff are recommending that First Student get a new contract, worth an estimated $40 million, but alternative transportation provider and competing bidder Zum has filed a formal protest.

“SPS staff’s initial recommendation to retain the status quo comes after an evaluation process that has featured seven months of delays since its October 2021 release, an abrupt bid cancellation and reopening, multiple miscalculations in scores, and the revelation of over 600 safety violations against First Student,” according to a news release from Zum.

As School Bus Fleet reported last month, First Student and staffers working for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission reached a settlement over issues ranging from spotty recordkeeping by a third-party drug test administrator to premature sign-offs of annual reviews before receipt of a motor vehicle report. First Student agreed to a penalty of $188,000, with $68,000 due immediately and the rest suspended – and possibly waived – if the company commits no further critical or acute violations during the next three years.

The UTC soon after approved the settlement agreement without condition, with First Student agreeing to provide quarterly reports to the commission for 18 months.

Scott Gulbransen, senior director of communications for First Student’s parent company, FirstGroup America, told SBF that the company had worked to address those issues and said that First Student was “able to correct most of the issues immediately and, with the UTC’s acceptance of our work, maintained our satisfactory rating – the highest possible.”

Zum took issue with the Seattle contract recommendation, citing concerns with scoring in the bid process.

“We remain optimistic the district will move quickly to correct scoring miscalculations, which omitted the cost of wheelchair-accessible buses and masked nearly $7.5 million in additional costs associated with First Student’s bid, granting them 12 unearned points and a faulty 5-point advantage overall,” according to the Zum release.

Said Zum founder and CEO Ritu Narayan: “Zum was founded with the backdrop of my personal experience as a working mother and an immigrant woman, often forced to navigate unlevel playing fields. This is exactly the type of inequity we work every day to eliminate, whereas we believe every student deserves safe and reliable transportation options, and their families deserve to be fully seen, heard, and respected as these decisions are made.”

In a May 4 letter to the Seattle school district, lawyers for First Student responded to Zum, insisting that the company’s protest lacked merit.

“Zum’s protest is based on allegations of arbitrary and capricious conduct on the part of (Seattle Public Schools), but the protest also reflects a misunderstanding of procurement guidelines and the discretion afforded SPS by the terms of the (request for proposal),” the letter stated.

Gulbransen said that First Student remains focused on serving Seattle Public Schools going forward.

“First Student is committed to following and respecting the process set forth by the Seattle Schools,” he said. “Our priorities haven’t changed in Seattle: we’re relentlessly recruiting drivers and providing safe and reliable transportation throughout the area. We remain focused and committed to serving the Seattle Public Schools and its families as we have for 30 years.”

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