SEATTLE - Every school day, while tens of thousands of Seattle Public Schools students wait at bus stops, KIRO 7 learned some 300 other students are chauffeured to school.
Private drivers pick them up from their front doors and drive them to school in taxi cabs and pricey Lincoln Town Cars.
And Seattle taxpayers are picking up the fares, which are estimated to be $1 million a year.
The Seattle School District, which has been criticized for the expense of cabs in audits for years, tells KIRO 7 the cab rides are necessary to comply with a little-known federal law.
If a student is forced to move to transitional housing because of economic hardship, The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act requires the school district to provide transportation to and from the student’s original school.
“The point of the law is to keep students in a consistent learning environment, to overcome the instability of being displaced from their homes,” said Dinah Ladd, the district’s McKinney-Vento homeless student liaison. “We don’t have enough shelters for all the students in transition,” Ladd said, admitting many of the students could live in private homes, far outside the district boundaries.
“We don’t ask about the cost,” said Ladd, noting that the district was working to keep up with the growing amount of students listed as homeless.
KIRO 7 investigators followed one taxi carrying two students from Seattle’s Beacon Hill to Bothell, where they are cared for by their grandmother. The trip is more than 60 miles round trip, and costs taxpayers more than $100 every day.
“I’m not that gung-ho on cabs,” said their grandmother, Yolanda. “It is a premium service. I didn’t expect for it to be as expensive as it is, but I’m like, whatever way you can drive them to be cost effective, I would gladly support that,” she said.” “I was wondering how long it would last.”
KIRO 7 investigators found other big districts, like Tacoma, use no cabs at all to comply with the law. They use their own buses to transport students as far away as Yelm, at a great savings, compared to cabs. SPS Transportation supervisor Brandon Holst admits the program using cans and Town Cars is expensive and may be unsustainable.
“We are looking at a variety of programs to contain the cost, with the idea that any savings can be reinvested into our classrooms,” Holst said.
But Holst also told KIRO 7 the district didn’t have a complete tally of the total cost to taxpayers.
“We have a request my leader made recently to break out those costs so we could really figure out how to be more efficient,” Holst said.
KIRO 7 investigators asked Holst if there were any studies showing the cost-effectiveness of door-to-door cab service.
“I don’t know of any,” he said.
When asked why Town Cars were being used in some cases, Holst didn’t have an answer. He also could not tell KIRO 7 if Town Cars were pricier than cabs.
KIRO 7 talked to cab drivers who compete for the right to drive one student to school for an entire year.
“It’s good money,” said Hassan Almi, a driver who enters a company lottery to “win” a student.
“It could be more than $200 a day. Some trips are longer,” he said.
Another cab driver, who did not want to be identified, told KIRO 7 he saw waste in the program.
“To be honest, they could buy their own fleet of cars, and hire driver full-time to do this,” he said. “They could put the savings into the classrooms. Hire more teachers,” he said.