Drivers: Bus plan is wrong route

Privatization of transportation could save millions

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Don Yasem, a driver for Coeur d'Alene School District 271, makes the daily checks on his bus Thursday before his afternoon school route.

COEUR d'ALENE - Now isn't the first time the Coeur d'Alene School District has considered contracting with an outside company for busing service.

And while it didn't happen in the past, it feels like it actually will now, some of the school district's current bus drivers said this week.

Unlike last time, now there is a $3 million budget shortfall at the district, stemming from a loss of federal government stimulus dollars. Additionally, the school district's chief operating officer, Wendell Wardell, has come out projecting $1.1 million would be saved annually by switching to a privatized transportation department.

"The feeling at the bus barn is that it's a done deal," said school district bus driver Bob Schneiter. The retired pastor is in his fourth year behind the wheel for the district.

"Wendell Wardell came and spoke to us at the bus barn," Schneiter said. "It sounded like it was a done deal."

Drivers said their benefits - including medical and retirement - account for nearly $600,000 of the $1.1 million.

Matt Melton, a driver for the district the past five years and a retired police officer, said Coeur d'Alene has one of the lowest operating costs per student in the state.

Drivers said the district spends $718 per student per year on bus transportation, compared with $805 statewide.

"In order to save $1.1 million, it just doesn't seem possible," Melton said.

Mike Webb, a district bus driver for the past seven years, said the district declined to switch to contract busing a few years ago because it was determined at that time it wasn't cost effective and the district didn't want to relinquish control of the transportation department.

Webb said Wardell is rushing the decision, and not looking at the issue from the proper long-term perspective.

Once the initial contract expires, the company will try and drop pay, Webb said.

An initial five-year contract would go by rapidly, he said.

"Then things are going to change," Webb said.

An initial contract will look good, but who knows what happens after that, he said.

Any bid would cover cost per student mile, bus replacement and maintenance, and personnel wages and benefits, drivers said.

A private company seeking to make money would cut corners to reduce spending, drivers said.

"We have the freedom to pull over and talk to our kids," Melton said. "If it takes a little more time to solve an issue, we have the freedom to do that."

He continued, "With private companies being concerned No. 1 with money, I'm afraid we're going to lose that freedom we have to do the job effectively and safely."

Most drivers work between 30 to 50 hours per week. Many start around 6 a.m. and finish up around 5 p.m., with a break in the middle of the day.

"The public really got a sense that (20 hours) is all we work to get 100 percent benefits, which isn't the case," Webb said.

Drivers estimated that the average district driver now has about 14 years on the job.

They say they do it to supplement their income and they enjoy kids and the camaraderie of the current group of drivers.

"Most of the people that work there do so because they love the atmosphere," said Schneiter. "There's not the typical adversarial feeling between the management and those of us who drive."

If the district goes to contract busing, Schneiter said he has been told by some drivers they would leave.

"So the atmosphere at the bus barn would change dramatically," he said.

He said dropping wages and the elimination of benefits would generate higher turnover. Melton said job turnover is low enough now that it takes up to four years to get a permanent route.

There are about 60 drivers, and 10 substitutes.

The current drivers anticipate being hired for the same pay and hours in any initial contract with an outside company.

New hires would be paid between $9 and $10 per hour by a private contractor, drivers said. New hires for the district now make a little more than $10.

Top pay right now is $14 per hour, but most drivers are earning about $11 or $12 per hour, drivers said.

They said their interactions with the community are invaluable to the district.

"Without a doubt, the No. 1 goodwill ambassadors in this community for the school district are the school bus drivers," Schneiter said. "We have contact with the students and parents."

Ambassadors like that can be invaluable at a time when the district is putting together a maintenance and operations levy that will go before voters in March, Schneiter said.

While all local school districts are facing tough budget times, Coeur d'Alene is the only district currently considering contract busing. Post Falls and Lakeland both looked into it over the years.

"Each time we concluded the savings would be minimal at best and possibly non-existent," said Tom Taggart, Lakeland's finance director. "Every district is different in geography, number of students and personnel costs. Lakeland travels more miles than Coeur d'Alene, but transports way less students."

Taggart said contracting to a private company saves on employee benefits.

"Lakeland dealt with this issue a number of years ago and does not provide health insurance until an employee works 30 hours per week," he said. "Lakeland is not adverse to considering contracting where it makes sense and where the savings are worth the pain."

He added, "The other big concern is that when you have a capital intensive program like transportation it is difficult to ever return to running it yourself if you want to do so."

That's what Post Falls concluded when it looked into the option several years ago, Superintendent Jerry Keane said.

"At that time there were not going to be significant savings," Keane said. "One of the problems is that the district basically turns over its bus fleet to the vendor. The concern (is) that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to return the transportation to the district once you commit."

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