As the new school year is set to begin, some details are emerging on Zum’s Los Angeles Unified School District’s transportation services new five-year supplemental contract that was announced in June.
Zum CEO Ritu Narayan told School Transportation News last month that the company will be ready to go, with operations being set up out of three newly purchased facilities. She added that Zum will assume about 80 percent of LAUSD’s outsourced transportation and about one-third of the district’s overall transportation operation.
LAUSD’s 2022-2023 school year starts on Monday.
The school district is the second largest in the nation. A district spokesperson said the fleet is comprised of 1,300 district-owned buses and up to 511 contracted buses provided by a variety of vendors, with Zum to operate 30 percent of those outsourced buses. Overall, 40,000 LAUSD students ride the school bus to and from school each day, with 12,000 students with disabilities receiving transportation services required by their Individualized Education Programs.
STN submitted a formal request to LAUSD to view the recent supplemental contract RFP and resulting bids, along with the previous RFP and bids. What is known is that Zum replaced First Student.
“While we’re disappointed in the decision to move away from First Student as the transportation provider for the LAUSD, we’re proud to have served the district, students, and their families. We stand ready to help in the future should the community again need our services,” Scott Gulbransen, the senior director communications for First Group, told STN.
Meanwhile, Narayan said she anticipates that Zum’s three new contracts will serve between 8,000 and 10,000 students. While the company also operates van service for certain students, she added that the LAUSD contract specifies school bus service.
“We will be employing our end-to-end technology, our buses, our drivers, and providing operational service. We’ll be responsible for all the routes and daily delivery,” Narayan explained.
The company was expecting to receive over 400 new propane-powered Blue Bird school buses purchased from A-Z Bus Sales in time for the new school year, but supply chain disruptions added an unexpected wrinkle. With many of those new orders unavailable in time, Zum was forced to acquire buses from other nearby districts and dealers.
That aside, company officials said last week that all necessary vehicles would be ready to provide service starting next week.
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Meanwhile, Narayan said Zum will transition to a full electric fleet of buses for LAUSD over the next several years, reiterating a company pledge that all vehicles used for student transportation will be zero emissions by 2025. But she noted the service that begins next month in Los Angeles will still be “carbon neutral on 100 percent of its rides” via the use of purchased carbon credits.
Statewide, all school buses will need to produce zero-emissions by 2035. The new state budget includes an additional $1.5 billion to that end.
Narayan also discussed last month the development of the company’s SafeGuard Driver Program, a safety technology, driver training and certification program that was unveiled in April. For example, Zum employs in-house, state-certified school bus driver trainers and follows all state-required school bus driver applicant fingerprinting and background checks.
“Safety is very high priority for us. We train our drivers extensively not just on the certification and the required things but also on how to deal with special education students, how to deal with different situations,” she shared. “We’ve partnered with special education experts to develop that part of the curriculum and, finally, how to provide a superior experience for the child at all times.”
Zum Survey Claims Parental Concerns with School Bus Efficiency, Safety
On Wednesday, Zum released results from an online survey of over 3,500 parents with school-age children conducted in April to inquire about their perceptions of school busing in the U.S. Questions centered on child safety, environmental sustainability, and technology-enabled efficiency.
Among the key findings, Zum said 67 percent of parents reported believing they should be able to track the school bus like they can with a package being delivered to their home. Also, 55 percent said they believe that inefficient routing and lack of resources cause student to sit on the bus too long each day. Nearly half (48 percent) said they agree that long commute times on school buses are harmful to school-aged children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Nearly two-thirds of parents (64 percent) said they feel the current school bus system is antiquated and in need of technical advancements to make it safer, more efficient, and better for the environment.
Among their safety concerns cited, 41 percent of parents said they were most concerned about bullying and fighting on the bus, and 54 percent said electric vehicles and electric school buses should replace diesel school buses.
Narayan noted last month that Zum relies heavily on technology to share real-time bus locations, student tracking on and off the buses, and incident reporting capabilities via a parent app. The information is fully integrated within the Zum platform that is also shared with the school district.
As for the national driver shortage and its impact on hiring hundreds of school bus drivers over the summer, Narayan said Zum offers highly competitive salaries and benefits as well as a positive workplace environment she likened to a community.
“One of the reasons the [driver shortage] challenge is there in the industry has been the early retirement of some of the drivers, and the new drivers aren’t in-flowing into the industry as fast as the senior drivers were retiring,” she observed. “That’s one of the things we’ve heavily focused on is by using modern techniques to bring the new set of drivers into the system, getting them through the entire training and certification, and getting them on the platform.”
Narayan concluded that the LAUSD service will be a “one-stop shop” consisting of vehicle maintenance. The company also hired all-new maintenance staff.
To date, Zum is reportedly working with 4,000 school sites and districts across North America and has completed over 1 million student rides.