The Elmbrook School District will at least explore alternative options for its public transportation services starting next year.
For over 30 years the district has been serviced by First Student, Inc. and Laidlaw, which was acquired by First Student in 2007.
The district’s contract with First Student will expire in June and Elmbrook is currently accepting bids from other transportation companies.
In December, Penny Wolf, a First Student bus driver was arrested and subsequently charged with OWI, possessing drugs and possessing a firearm while driving a school bus at Swanson Elementary.
Deal nearing end
However, Elmbrook School District chief information officer Chris Thompson said that the district accepting bids is not a direct response from that incident.
“It was set to expire in June anyway so it seemed prudent for us to go through an RFP (Request for Proposal) process to evaluate all of our options,” Thompson said. “We have a long-standing relationship with First Student.”
Elmbrook previously has engaged in three-year increments for contracting with First Student; however, the district is planning to agree to a five-year deal with either First Student or a different company starting next school year.
“If we are to make a change we just are recognizing that it’s expensive to start up a transportation business in our community. They’re making an investment for a bus fleet and a terminal in our community so we felt we needed, if it’s not First Student, to make a long-term contract,” Thompson said.
The district currently budgets approximately $3 million per year to provide its public transportation services. In total, First Student provides 56 buses, many of which run multiple routes every morning and afternoon as well as transportation for field trips and after-school activities.
Thompson said the district is hopeful it can achieve similar annual costs in its new contract; however, officials recognize that there may be added expenses.
“I hope it’s about the same, but we’re asking for more. Right now, about 25 percent of our bus fleet have cameras, we’re asking for 100 percent to have cameras,” Thompson said.
Elmbrook has set its sights on all buses having cameras for a number of reasons.
“It’s becoming best practice. Number one is for student safety. We can better respond to behavior by students. It’s no different than why we put cameras in our schools,” Thompson said. “It also supports driver safety. It just adds an extra layer of support and comfort.”
The district is also considering including other technological advancements in its public transportation contract, such as a notification system that would alert families if their bus is running late.
“We’re really using this as an opportunity to say ‘Hey, it’s been a long time since Elmbrook has really evaluated the market and the technologies in that market,’” Thompson said.
First Student will continue to operate as Elmbrook’s public transportation provider at least through the end of this school year.
Thompson noted that the district and First Student have had continuing conversations since last month’s incident and that district officials are confident that the company is capable of providing a safe service for students and families.
“We are committed to working with them to close out the school year. It’s not really feasible to think about a change any sooner than that. Just to order new buses would take two to three months,” Thompson said. “They’re committed to the safe transport of our students. They’ve been responsive. We are committed to working with them.”