Student transport company Zum, newly contracted to carry Santa Barbara Unified school kids, has enhanced safety features and AI tracking on board their 42 diesel buses. The company is working with the district to transition to an all-electric fleet. | Callie Fausey

When thinking about a school bus, an age-old image comes to mind: rusted, yellow, diesel-fueled bus with peeling, gray vinyl seats that are always suspiciously sticky. And that vinyl smell is unforgettable.

But Santa Barbara Unified’s new 42-strong fleet is in much better shape. The buses still have that nostalgic smell and yellow exterior, but with fresh seats and added safety features — like seat belts. (Back in the day, three kids could cram into one seat and jump whenever the bus hit a speed bump.)

This Zum school bus interior is all new but retains the classic vinyl seats. | Callie Fausey

In February, the school district announced its $30 million, five-year contract with Zum to provide this modern student transportation, which also includes an AI platform with real-time location tracking and notifications to let parents know when their child gets on or off the bus.

The buses will primarily serve elementary school students, alongside being used for special education and field trips.

Zum is still designing the daily routes — which will be “optimized” to ensure the shortest commutes for students, according to the company — and working on opening a local yard and office. In the meantime, they are focusing on recruiting 46 bus drivers before school starts in August.

That includes both new and experienced bus drivers. One of their newest drivers is Santa Barbara resident Jennifer Sanders. Equipped with zero experience behind the wheel of a bus, she was looking for a career change.

As a mom of kids who are “pretty much grown now,” she said, she was inspired by the chance to have a positive influence on other children.

“I mean, at times, we as bus drivers are the first person or the last person that some kids see during the day,” she explained. “We have a real opportunity to make a difference.”

Sanders said Zum held her hand through the entire comprehensive training process. Drivers are their “brand ambassadors,” explained CEO Ritu Narayan, so they try to make it easy to get behind the wheel — when commuting from Ventura or Oxnard, for example, drivers will be offered a free shuttle service to work.

Jennifer Sanders trained with Zum to become a certified school bus driver. | Callie Fausey

They interviewed drivers when deciding what buses to purchase, which revealed three main problems: seats without lumbar support, poor acoustics amplifying noisy kids and affecting drivers’ hearing, and no air-conditioning.

“So we just took care of all those things,” Narayan said. She added that they also provide benefits and competitive wages, starting at $27-$34 an hour in Santa Barbara.

Narayan herself was Zum’s first driver, back when the student transportation company was still getting its footing with a passenger car fleet, before expanding, buying buses, and partnering with school districts in 2019.

“A few years back in 2013-14, I was working at eBay and having this issue of how do you pick up and drop off your children safely and reliably while you’re still at work,” she said. “My mom was an educator who left her job for the exact same reason 30 years before.”

The characteristic yellow bus has not changed much in the last 80 years. “It is still very antiquated, not touched by technology,” Narayan added. “And around half a million buses on the road in the U.S. are still diesel buses, which is polluting and harmful to children.”

Over the next five years, Zum plans to transition SBUSD’s bus fleet to electric. To help with that transition, the district recently received $5.1 million for 25 new buses from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Rebate Program.

“We are using technology and making this entire system safer, more reliable, and sustainable,” Narayan said.

To learn more about Zum’s upcoming hiring events, visit: ​​ are the upcoming dates and times.

June 25, 2024 from 9am to 6pm

Courtyard Oxnard Ventura
600 E Esplanade Dr, Oxnard, CA 93036

June 26, 2024 from 9am to 6pm

Embassy Suites by Hilton Lompoc Central Coast
1117 N H St, Lompoc, CA 93436

July 9, 2024 from 9am to 6pm

Courtyard Oxnard Ventura
600 E Esplanade Dr, Oxnard, CA 93036

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