Parents unaware lack of drivers caused change
By Rachel COleman
• Leader & Times
When parents of about 30 children who live in the Western and Cimarron trailer parks learned students in 4th grade and up would no longer be eligible for bus rides to school, they weren’t happy. In fact, enough people were upset that they gathered nearly 100 signatures and brought a petition to the USD 480 Central Office to make their displeasure known.
“We didn’t even know at first who’d dropped it off,” said auxiliary services director Robert Burkey. “Someone brought it to the front desk and left it there, but there was no contact number. So, we just started calling names.”
With two secretaries assigned to the task, administration finally obtained the name of a parent who agreed to serve as a spokesperson.
“We had a 45-minute meeting with this mother, and it, basically, boiled down to the misconception that parents in the mobile home parks thought that we’d made this decision as a cost-cutting measure,” Burkey said, “and they were upset. They had valid concerns, all of which were things we had thought about. It gets cold in the winter. It’s far from the schools, 1.3 miles. It’s a long way to walk, we agree.”
For parents of children too old to board the bus, the district’s decision to increase the distance requirements for 4th- to 8th-graders didn’t make sense.
“They said, ‘there’s still room on the bus when my younger children get on; why can’t our older kids ride, too?’” Burkey said. In response, he showed the mother the numbers for the entire route.
“That bus is full by the time they get to school,” he said. “All our buses are full. We have the same amount of routes being run, and we could run two more routes if we could just hire enough drivers. We have been trying to attract drivers for years, and we’re still short of what the board has approved.”
Currently, the district employs eight full-time bus drivers, with several part-time and substitute drivers hired to fill in the gaps. Burkey said the board increased pay, made drivers’ jobs eligible for full-time hours with year-round work and benefits — but the department is still short three drivers.
“If we had the drivers, I’m sure our board would allow us to take another look at the district’s transportation boundaries,” Burkey said.
This year, facing a shortage of drivers, and an increasing number of students eligible to ride, the board approved an increase of $110,000 to try to address transportation challenges. Even so, the busing boundaries had to increase for all but the youngest students.
“These parents, at the mobile home park, wanted us to make an exception for their 30 students, and I had to tell them that if we expand the boundary, move it in that half mile, then we have to do that everywhere. It’s not just those 30 kids, it ends up being 150 kids.”
With the district’s enrollment increasing each year, Burkey noted, the situation is bound to get worse.
“Every year we’re adding 100 kids eligible to ride, and we’re already full. What are we going to do?” he said. “We either get more drivers with increased pay and benefits or we cut back on the number of students eligible. It ended up being a twofold thing to at least tread water. And we have more younger kids coming up the ranks. When the kindergarten class gets to fourth-grade, and they have to travel to intermediate schools, that’s going to be a problem.”
For now, it’s the children who live in the two facing mobile-home just south of the Western Avenue and Tucker Road intersection who have the problem.
“It’s a hard thing,” Burkey said. “I’m the same way as the parents who signed the petition. I worry about my kid. That’s who I’m fighting for. Every point they brought up — we talked about all that months before we did this. This was a hard decision to make.”
Though the spokeswoman for the petitioners was disappointed, Burkey said, “she understood, and she thanked me. She was glad to hear that it wasn’t a cost-cutting decision, and that we’re actually trying to find better solutions to the problem.”
Burkey is hopeful that the district’s potential bond issue might address some of the factors contributing to the problem.
“If we had another, bigger school closer to where the students live, or if they didn’t have to travel to an intermediate-school location, that might help,” he said. “But for now, we have to do the best we can with what we have.”
Another possible solution?
“I told this mother, ‘go talk to all your friends and tell them to get a CDL and come drive buses for us,’” Burkey said. “We could sure use some more drivers.”
‘Cut in half’
Other than the petitioners, the district’s busing changes have taken effect with few problems. One exception? An apartment complex that was divided in half by the boundary line.
“The line cut right through. Some of the students in the complex were eligible, but others across the complex were not,” Burkey said. “That was an error. We moved the boundary closer so the whole complex would qualify.”
Thus far, that situation has been the only exception to the new boundaries in place for the 2013-14 school year.