Parents and bus drivers opposed to a van service contract maintain that yellow school buses are significantly safer than other types of vehicles.

New S.F. school transit service raises bus drivers’ concerns

Union questions van company’s safety standards

The San Francisco school board this week voted to expand the school district’s use of an app-based van service with non-unionized drivers, in a move that has the school bus union and some parents worried for student safety.

However, district officials maintain that the company, Zum Services, has a strong safety and customer service record, and does not compromise the safety of students.

The San Francisco Unified School District board on Tuesday unanimously approved a $30 million contract for continued school bus service with First Student, Inc. through the 2020-21 school year.

The board also approved a second contract with Zum Services, a commercial van company that provides smaller vehicles serving students, for three years beginning Feb. 12, with a cost cap of $629,000 for the first 11 months.

Faced with a nearly $32 million budget crisis, school district officials hope the pilot program provides a cost-effective alternative to school buses when larger vehicles aren’t necessary. The vans, for example, could help some students meet individual needs like attending internships, City College of San Francisco classes or therapy.

But the school district’s bus drivers — members of the Local 1751 SMART union — argue Zum Service’s driver requirements aren’t stringent enough, and called into question its safety practices in the months leading up to the vote.

Some argued that using passenger cars sets a dangerous precedent that could replace school buses in the future. Others questioned how the company would continue service in light of the recent passage of AB5, the state law that aims to change how many independent contractors, particularly ride-hail drivers, are treated.

“When the district proposes to use standard passenger cars, the extensive safety oversight, regulations and legal requirements for school buses and school bus drivers are thrown out the window and do not apply,” said Meg Felts, a bus driver who has worked with the district for 34 years.

Zum Services requires driver applicants to go through a three-step application process that includes multiple layers of screening, vetting and testing along with requiring three years of childcare experience, and more, according to its website.

In addition, its driver applicants must pass a driving test, accompany a ride-along and own a four-door vehicle made in 2009 at earliest that passes a 19-point vehicle inspection and undergoes annual inspection and ongoing maintenance, according to the company website. The school district currently employs Zum Services to transport a handful of students for one program.

About 4,000 schools across 200 school districts in California use Zum Services, and it has no recorded child fatalities, according to Orla O’Keeffe, the Chief of Policy and Operations for the school district’s transportation department. Families can track their students through an app and drivers take online courses with Vector Solutions.

But school buses are 70 times safer for transport than regular vehicles, according to the American School Bus Council — and no child fatalities have occurred due to the district’s school buses in the 45 years its drivers have served the district, school bus drivers said.

The buses are painted yellow to improve visibility and have reinforced steel sides to protect them from being crushed. They can also legally stop traffic so students can board.

Bus drivers undergo 40 hours of training in the classroom and behind the wheel. They take a written exam with a coordinator in a room they can’t leave and must pass a two-hour long-drive test. They attend 10 hours of legally documented safe driving classes annually — and every five years must redo their original training.

Christina Share, a parent of a child who has cognitive disabilities, spoke in opposition to the Zum Services contract at the meeting.

“I don’t feel (my child) would be safe in a Zum situation,” she said. “The safest place for her — and it really does matter — is on a school bus with a trained school bus driver.”

Though the Board of Education approved the contracts, members shared concerns about the amount spent on school bus transportation — which has increased 38% since 2014 despite student numbers remaining stable, according to O’Keeffe.

“The number that really sticks out is $18,654, which is $103 a day, which is over $50 one way to school and $50 to get back,” school board president Mark Sanchez said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Zum representatives were not present at the meeting and were not immediately available for comment.

dhorowitz@sfexaminer.com

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