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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools switches bus provider for 2023-2024 school year

Durham School buses drop off students at Franklin Elementary in Spokane in this January 2022 photo.  (Liz Kishimoto/The Spokesman-Revi)
By Garrett Cabeza and Kip Hill The Spokesman-Review

Spokane students will be riding buses owned and dispatched by a new company in the fall, the first switch in education transportation at the district in 15 years.

California-based Zum Services Inc. was awarded a five-year contract by the Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors on Wednesday night, worth $71.8 million.

Zum, founded in 2014 and worth more than $1 billion, was selected unanimously over Durham School Services, which has been providing transportation services for the district since the 2008-2009 school year. The district has contracted with private companies to provide busing services since the mid-1970s.

First Student, based in Ohio, also submitted a bid but wasn’t considered because the bid did not include the full scope of work outlined in the request for proposals, Corey Arkle, transportation supervisor for Spokane Public Schools, told board members.

“It wasn’t just the total cost we were considering, but what we’re getting for our cost,” Arkle said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

That includes technology that will allow parents and district officials to track buses more easily, similar to ride-hailing services like Uber, Arkle said. The deal will also provide newer vehicles and the potential to bring in electric and low-emission buses into the fleet.

The contract takes effect at the beginning of August.

Durham entered the final year of its contract with the district in fall 2022 after a bumpy service record, blamed in part on a national shortage of drivers tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company made local management changes in March 2021 following complaints about its compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, as well as the death of a 62-year-old bus attendant who’d contracted the disease.

School board President Mike Wiser said Durham was a good partner to the school district in getting through the chaos of the pandemic and staffing.

“This doesn’t necessarily reflect that they wouldn’t be capable to continue providing services,” Wiser said. “But Zum really impressed me, especially with their technology platform.”

New drivers, a riding partnership with the Spokane Transit Authority and an increase in the walking boundaries to stops from 1 mile to 1½ miles for secondary students were credited with improving transportation service this fall.

Arkle said he anticipated the partnership with STA would continue with the new contract. Revisions to walking boundaries would need to go before the school board before being adopted, he said.

Arkle said the district is up to 135 bus drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, up from 85 before the school year began. That’s still down from the 170 they had before the COVID-19 pandemic, Arkle said.

“We want to keep building on that, obviously retain and build on that,” Arkle said at Wednesday night’s board meeting.

He said he is confident Zum will be able to provide buses and staff to drive them by the fall. He said the company has done so in shorter time frames than the roughly five months it will have to provide transportation services to Spokane students.

In January 2022, the district formed a special committee to study its transportation future. That led to a request for public bids in December, and interviews of the two firms – Zum and Durham – in late February.

School transportation officials scored Zum higher on a scale that included initial bid documents, references and an interview. Zum’s bid was slightly higher per year than Durham’s, but officials said they were impressed by Zum’s staffing plan in addition to the technological advancements.

Zum provides transportation to students in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle, according to its website. It has been providing alternative transportation to Spokane students under contract this school year.

Arkle said the contract with Zum did not include electric buses because of funding and infrastructure components. He said it will take time to move toward an electric fleet, but the district and Zum can start work on that.

Sarah Skinner, vice president of partnerships and business development at Zum, said she would love to work with the district to convert its fleet to electric and said it would be “feasible” to do so during the five-year contract.

Skinner said Zum’s fleet is 100% carbon-neutral, the first and only fully carbon-neutral student transportation company in the U.S.

She said the Oakland Unified School District, which partners with Zum, in California is on track to be the first electric vehicle fleet by this fall.

“We see this as a big piece of creating healthier communities,” Skinner said.