(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

SF school bus drivers fear new contracts could lower safety standards

Changes to school transportation on the horizon

San Francisco’s yellow school bus drivers are feeling blue.

Faced with rising transportation costs, the San Francisco Unified School District may change how it hires school bus drivers, slicing off a section of its fleet into a special new category — one that drivers fear would require a lower level of safety certification.

A request for bids under the new contract went public in August, with responses from the district expected to go public by November 1. The Board of Education is set to vote on the matter in December.

But the school bus drivers are already honking their horns in warning.

Tuesday night, more than two dozen drivers and union supporters marched to school district headquarters at 555 Franklin St. to protest the proposed contract change during the Board of Education’s regular meeting.

“The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, but when it comes to safety we don’t mess around!” chanted members of SMART Local 1741, the drivers’ union.

The San Francisco Labor Council, a powerful political alliance of city unions, also voted Monday to back SMART Local 1741 and to support safety-certified yellow school bus drivers.

The San Francisco Unified School District responded to those critiques in written form and verbally, asserting “Student safety is our number one priority.”

The new proposal may even send some yellow school buses riding off into the sunset, making way for small passenger vans that the drivers fear will be driven by non-union independent contractors.

Think Uber but for kids, they said.

“Not only do we learn how to drive in this crazy city and turn right on a dime, we’re part of this city family,” said Sharon Chappil, president of SMART Local 1741, who has driven a school bus herself.

Chappil, who is a San Francisco native who attended George Washington High School, said “We just want people (driving) who’re safe.”

SFUSD vendor First Student runs 231 yellow school buses across more than a hundred San Francisco schools, serving roughly 3,500 students daily. But while in previous years companies would bid on contracts to provide buses to serve all of the district’s various needs — from special education students’ daily rides to field trips — now the contract will be split into three distinct categories.

One contractor would provide some 200 small yellow buses, which serve roughly 1,500 home-to-school students and students with disabilities who have individualized education programs. Another contractor would provide larger yellow buses, of which there are now 29, for daily home-to-school transportation for 2,055 students in special education and field trips for all students.

But the third contractor is the sticking point for the drivers. Under this newly created contract, a company would provide just ten commercial passenger vans — not yellow buses — for more on-the-fly transportation needs for foster students and pregnant mothers at Hilltop High School, among others.

Those students have also asked for more abundant short-term trips and more “flexibility,” the district said, like high school students who need a ride to and from an internship.

Union drivers said those terms are euphemisms for Uber and Lyft-like services, which historically have lacked the robust criminal background checks and training of publicly provided transportation services.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of service provided for our students, to shift the transportation costs to more sustainable modes of transportation,” Archie Fokin, director of transportation at SFUSD, told a Board of Education committee in September.

“Times have changed, we have to change,” he said.

One of the biggest drivers of change is cost. In the 2014-2015 school year the district’s transportation budget was $24.8 million, but by the 2018-2019 school year it jumped to $34.3 million, despite serving roughly the same number of students.

That is partly due to a 20 percent increase in the rate the district pays for 20 passenger vehicles and 78 passenger vehicles, hence staff’s desire to try new, smaller vehicles as a cost-saving measure, Fokin told the Board of Education. The district also added 27 more buses in the last four years, with 18 more locations than they used to serve.

But drivers say the district may be cutting back on safety in order to cut costs.

Yellow school bus drivers are certified by the California Highway Patrol and must retest every five years. They also undergo more than 20 hours of classroom training and 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training, according to Local 1741, which includes background checks, medical exams and drug screening.

At the Tuesday Board of Education meeting, drivers rejected the idea of budging on any of those safety certifications.

“I know to some people I’m just a bus driver” but “it’s really upsetting,” Laura Cappelletti told the Board of Education at the podium, during public comment. She’s driven school buses in San Francisco since 1985.

“I realize there’s a driver shortage, and school buses are expensive. But this is not the answer,” she said. “Who wants to choose which children should be less safe?”

After the meeting, the San Francisco Examiner asked Superintendent Vincent Matthews to respond to drivers’ claims.

“Currently it’s been brought to bid, and no decision has been made,” Matthews said.

He repeated the answer for various questions, including when asked to address drivers’ fears that unions would be weakened by the new contract process.

When asked to confirm if any ride hail companies with independent contractors are being considered for the program, he said “as companies come in, we don’t discuss that until it has been brought to the board.”

When asked if a Transportation Network Company, the state term for ride-hail companies like Uber or Lyft, could technically be granted a school contract, Matthews would not confirm or deny it.

“I’m not gonna go there,” he said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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