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The district selected First Student to provide yellow bus transportation.

First Student will bus Madison’s elementary and middle school students to school beginning this fall.

The Madison School Board approved a new five-year, $81 million contract with the national bus company Monday night. First Student, Go-Riteway Transportation and Badger Bus, which provides the current yellow bus services for the district, were the three finalists from the request for proposals process.

According to documents from the district, First Student had the lowest bid at $81.3 million, while Badger Bus’ bid was $82 million. Go-Riteway bid on only one set of routes for a single feeder pattern to a high school, which would have required partnering with either Badger Bus or First Student. That would been more expensive in either case, according to a memo to the School Board.

Along with the price, Cedric Hodo, MMSD's executive director of building services and operations, told the board that officials believe First Student will provide the best service, technology, safety and reliability. Most significantly, Hodo said, officials believe First Student is the likeliest to be able to have enough drivers to maintain the two-tier schedule key to moving middle school start times, in the works since 2016.

“This is the number one priority from our vantage point, getting back to a two-tier system,” Hodo said. “From the perspective of middle schools, you can make the case that if some middle school students are getting to school late and some are getting to school earlier, that can be a monumental inequality when it comes to learning.”

In a two-tier system, buses travel two different school routes each morning and afternoon based on start times. Amid the bus driver shortage locally and nationally, the district has had to maintain a three-tier system in recent years, which offers less flexibility in start times.

Other challenges with a three-tier system include little time for traffic or weather delays, buses at maximum capacity and interruptions to instruction when buses arrive late, according to district officials.

The shift to two-tier will allow the district to restart its planned transition for middle school start times. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that later start times for middle school students could provide benefits for attendance, sleep health and behavior.

The district planned to move all 12 middle schools to an 8:40 a.m. start time by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, a significant change for 10 of those schools which started the day at 7:35 a.m.

The pandemic interrupted that plan, with bus driver shortages proving challenging. This year, five middle schools start at 7:33 a.m., one at 8:23 a.m. and the rest at 9 a.m.

Now that the contract is in place, district officials can determine start times for the fall and share them with families this spring.

All of the district’s middle schoolers will travel on yellow buses under the new plan, a change from the current split that has the west side middle schoolers on yellow buses and east side middle schoolers on Metro buses. Parents of east side middle school students shared concerns about the equity of that arrangement earlier this school year.

First Student will also provide busing for students in special education.

Metro partnership

Madison Metro buses will still be the method of transportation for high schoolers.

The change in partnership with Metro nearly delayed Monday night’s vote, as some board members wanted to better understand the financial repercussions of no longer having Metro provide any middle school service.

But administration officials stressed that time was of the essence, with Hodo saying “our back is up against the wall” to give First Student enough time to plan its transition this fall.

“We won’t have a transportation company ready to start if we don’t vote,” Hodo said.

The board’s Metro concerns were largely based on comments, submitted in written form and during the public comment period, from Metro General Manager Justin Stuehrenberg. He explained that, while Metro wasn’t taking a position on the board’s vote, it was important to know that MMSD will not likely see cost savings in its Metro partnership from the change.

“I’ll note that writing this letter is an extraordinary step for me,” Stuehrenberg wrote. “In my nearly three years at Metro, I have never gotten involved in the internal decision making for any of our nine different partners. However, I feel that the cascading impacts of this change are not well understood, and I feel obligated to ensure the Board fully understands them prior to making this crucial decision.”

The biggest risk he highlighted is that if the district’s new provider is unable to adequately staff the necessary routes, as Badger Bus has been unable to over the past two years, Metro will have less capacity to step in and assist.

“We’re always willing to help to the extent that we can,” Stuehrenberg told the board in response to a question Monday night. “We will have less ability to fill in gaps than we have had the last two years.”

While board members were sensitive to the importance of the partnership with Metro and at one point discussed tabling the vote on the contract to discuss it further, they decided not to risk not having the First Student buses ready in time.

“I feel like you all have done your due diligence to answer as many questions as you can,” board member Nichelle Nichols told staff presenting on the contract. “I feel like we could move forward tonight.”

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