End of the road for Parkrose bus drivers?

The Parkrose School District recently notified the union representing its bus drivers a feasibility study was commissioned to determine how much money the district would save, if any, contracting bus service to a private company–the first step towards firing drivers and selling the bus fleet–effective the 2014-15 school year.

At the Parkrose Board of Education's October meeting, classified union employees Colleen Van Houten and Rick Doyle listen to the ruling barring Van Houten from reading her statement during October's Citizen Comment period because she is not a resident.

Halfway into October’s three-hour Board of Education meeting–when Vice-Chair Thuy Tran, conducting the meeting in Chair Ed Grassel’s absence announced before a break two of the three people who filled out comment cards to speak during the Citizen Comment portion would not be allowed because they are not district residents–things got testy.

During the break, it was agreed district employee Richard Doyle–also Oregon School Employees Association’s chapter president who has a regular slot on the agenda–would read statements of Colleen Van Houten, a district bus driver and educational assistant with 15-years service at Parkrose and OSEA president Tim Stoelb into the record.

In his remarks, Doyle, an 11-year technology specialist with the district, said he was raised in a severely abusive home where his father bullied and mistreated everybody and that this is the first time feels the administration is employing the aggressive tactics his father enjoyed.

He also disputed the assertion that employees only speak through their union representatives at BOE meetings. “I do know for fact employees have spoken who were not residents,” he said. “We’re here to raise the issues, to make sure that everybody understands why this is so important. Not only to our bus drivers, not only to the other classified employees from our district, but to students and parents of this community.”

Emanating from the budget committee under the previously constituted board of education, the current board moved the cost-cutting idea forward.

The study costs $3,500 according to Grassel, who declined comment until results are made public.

By law, the union has the right to provide a study countering the district’s.

According to numbers supplied by the district, Parkrose employs 22 people in its transportation department.

That includes one full time supervisor, a mechanic and a dispatcher/trainer; one driver works eight hours a day, 13 work four hours a day, and the remaining drivers work at least 4.5 hours a day per week.

Unionized school bus driver makes from $14.18 to $17.96 per hour.

Two drivers have 10 years service, one has 15, and one has driven Parkrose kids around town for more than 20 years.

Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray outlined her arguments for the action in a talking points memo distributed at last month’s booster meeting. They include pressure by “parents and patrons” to add more school days.

Lawn signs, part of the union's grassroots campaign to save drivers' jobs, festoon the Parkrose neighborhood.

Gray told the group she has not set the target number of days to add, but it would have to be “significant,” at least three or more.

BOE Chair Grassel, who was at this meeting, told the boosters that generally, $100,000 gets one school day, or one more teacher in a school year.

In a statement emailed to the Memo, Gray said, “Part of our vision statement says… ‘All children read and think critically at high levels, graduating college and are career ready.’ To that end, the Parkrose SD must concentrate its efforts on supporting those means to make that happen for ALL children. This includes being wise stewards of our funds. We have to look under every stone for efficiencies and savings in order to bring back lost school days and staff. One of those ways is investigating a transportation conversion.

“If the district sees overall savings that are significant and sustainable, we will have to think seriously about moving in that direction. If indeed the district decides to contract out, you can believe that we will always keep the safety of our children as our number one priority. If you can have great service that is safe and efficient and bring back dollars to our classrooms, why wouldn’t you do that? Who are we here for? I have worked many years with a private bus company and had great success. I have personal experience with this. If the savings are there, we will make a decision that supports our kids first.”

The OSEA has supported its Parkrose chapter with pro-driver signs festooning street corners and yards all over Parkrose, and has scheduled drivers to speak to community groups about why privatization is a bad idea.

After a presentation by drivers at October’s combined Parkrose Neighborhood Association/Historic Parkrose meeting, Mary Lu Baetkey, a retired teacher and longtime Parkrose resident who was elected to the school board last May expressed sympathy for the drivers, but said “You’re right; the reality is, it’s a crappy time to be in public education.”

She added, “The last special session gave Parkrose approximately $300,000 for next school year; that’s nothing. We’ve lost 35 staff positions [teachers] in the last eight years. It’d take $9 to 10 million dollars to get us back.”

Colleen Van Houten
In an at times emotional telephone interview Van Houten–also drivers’ spokesperson–said drivers grasp the chronic underfunding of schools paradigm but think it is a bad idea to shed millions of dollars Parkrose has invested in its transportation system and in its highly trained, drug-tested professional drivers for a corporation–one possibly foreign owned–where profits are the number one priority.

“Once the district sells their bus fleet, there is no going back; rather than make this hurtful cut, we’d rather have the district work with us–let’s keep it local,” Van Houten said.

She referred to a website, www.dontcontractout.org, that has a study refuting the claim that it is cheaper for school districts to use private companies for bus service.

Van Houten drives mornings and afternoons and fills the hole in her schedule employed as an educational assistant at the district’s Shaver Elementary, but said if she loses her driving job, she might have to quit her job at Shaver. “I need full-time employment,” she said. “If it doesn’t work out, I may have to leave. I love my job; I truly, truly care about these kids and it breaks my heart. They trust me. I trust them. I could go on and on …”

Van Houten is not optimistic about the future. “I see it [the feasibility study] as a first step towards the end; I don’t want to wait until it’s done before speaking up.”

She is concerned about long-term implications for the district and the impact the decision to replace the drivers will have.

She asserts the district and parents will lose control of the system replacing drivers with a for-profit company, “Once they’re with that company, they have no more control of the costs. If that company decides two or three years down the road to raise prices, the district has no control–or alternative.”

Van Houten touts drivers as a rolling neighborhood watch, another asset union drivers bring to the table. “We know these neighborhoods so very well; if we see things out of the ordinary, we check into things like that,” Van Houten said.

‘Ms. V’ to the kids, Van Houten said they flash the V for victory, or peace sign when they see her.

She sees more these days, especially from high school students.

“Lately I’ve had six or seven older kids pop on my bus and say ‘Hey, Ms. V, good to see you … How are you?’ None of them specifically said they support me, but in my mind, that’s them supporting me.”

Or, they’re saying goodbye.

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One Comment to “End of the road for Parkrose bus drivers?”

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