An expansive property close to Renton in South Seattle looks out at the snowy peaks of Mount Rainier and the Olympics in the distance. But that 18-acre property’s mountainous view could soon be juxtaposed with hundreds of yellow school buses.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is considering buying the parcel of land listed at $4 million to help them prepare for the future, says Associate Superintendent of Operations and Facilities Flip Herndon. Such a space could attract bids from more bus contractors aside from First Student, the only company to submit a proposal last year. First Student is now in the first year of a three-year contract with the school district worth at least $27 million per year. “We always love to have competition,” Herndon told Seattle Weekly. “If we’re able to provide enough bus parking, then sometimes that allows for additional bidders to look at that process.”
The school district began negotiating the sale at the beginning of January and has 120 days, May at the latest, to come to a decision. SPS is currently undergoing a due diligence and feasibility process to determine how many buses the property would hold, what kind of additional infrastructure would be needed, and whether it fulfills the requirements of the school district.
Purchasing the property would also allow the district to use capital levy dollars instead of general fund money to house the buses. SPS currently draws from general funds to pay for the leases on bus lot properties in South Park and Lake City. First Student now leases the land from the district and holds their buses there. Reducing the impact on the general fund would leave more money “that can then be used for hiring more teachers, or purchasing more curriculum, or any of the other expenses,” Herndon added.
However, he clarified that the move does not indicate that the district is considering breaking its contract with First Student; nor is it a reaction to the contract dispute between the company and Teamsters Local 174, the union representing about 400 Seattle school bus drivers. In fact, the district has been considering purchasing its own property for about a year, and the land at 13001 Martin Luther King Junior Way S recently became available.
On Saturday, the drivers ended a nine-day strike over First Student’s inadequate healthcare and retirement pension. Drivers voted 97 percent in favor of accepting a new agreement that provides a pension plan and healthcare at an affordable cost. First Student and the Teamsters finalized the agreement Friday, allowing yellow bus service to resume on Monday. It was the second time this school year that drivers staged a strike, forcing 12,000 students to rely on public transportation, walking, and car-for-hire services.
At least 1,200 educators joined the striking bus drivers in a solidarity walkout after school last Wednesday. “It was energizing and supportive and we appreciate the opportunity to unite in solidarity with the bus drivers and the Teamsters union,” said the Seattle Education Association President Phyllis Campano. “It’s great when two unions can come together and support each other.”
Teamsters Director of Communication and Research Jamie Fleming was reluctant to share specific details about the contract between First Student and the union on Monday, but she did concede that “this new contract is going to be a huge benefit not just for the drivers that are able to achieve full-time hours, but for everyone.” The last contract that was proposed at the end of January only provided comprehensive health care coverage for 22 full-time drivers.
As for the property that the school district is considering purchasing, Fleming said that the Teamsters don’t have a strong opinion about it following Saturday’s vote. “Now that this contract is settled, I think we’re hoping to have a better relationship with First Student going forward. What we care about is that our members are being taken care of properly and with this new contract, First Student will be taking better care of our members.”