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Parkrose closer to outsourcing student transportation

The Parkrose Board of Education voted to accept a transportation feasibility study at its Jan. 27 meeting. Accepting the study is the first step towards privatizing bus service and selling the district's bus fleet, a major asset. Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray, standing, gives Parkrose board of education members, seated, from left, Ed Grassel, Thuy Tran and James Trujillo tokens of her appreciation at January meeting.
Mid-county Memo photo/Tim Curran
At the end of January's four-hour-double marathon board of education meeting, The Parkrose School Board voted 4-1 to accept agenda item number “13P”. It was a resolution to accept a feasibility study outlining potential savings by outsourcing bus service to a private contractor. Currently, the district employs 19 bus drivers, one mechanic, dispatcher and supervisor. Commissioning and then accepting the study is the first step, by state law, towards outsourcing.

A final vote to outsource bus service and sell its fleet of buses is scheduled for the board's Feb. 24 meeting. Outsourcing is permanent. Once assets are sold, costs to re-acquire buses and re-hire a transportation staff would be prohibitive.

Prior to the meeting, dozens of community members, including Parkrose teachers, bus drivers and co-workers rallied outside the administration building in support of bus drivers.

Erick Flores, the lone no vote on the board, said he spoke to myriad groups and individuals in the community about the issue said neither any group nor individual he spoke to was in favor of outsourcing, and that he feels the board could spend their time better focusing on student achievement. “I would like to prioritize our time,” he said, “As opposed to wasting additional time on something the community doesn't want.”

However, the people board chair Ed Grassel spoke to were neutral on the issue, he told the Memo. Asked their names, Grassel said he only remembered one, former board member Adair Fernee. “I don't know who Erick is talking to. Everyone I spoke to is pretty much neutral.” He added, “Student safety is the number one issue and that's where I'll make my decision,” Grassel said. “It won't be about money, it'll be about safety and the people I spoke to are neutral on it.” He said he has received only one letter addressed to the board opposing privatization. He answered that concern with facts the letter writer did not have. “We have a responsibility to look under every rock to save money to bring back school days for the betterment of our students.” He has not made up his mind yet, but said the economy is forcing difficult decisions on the board. “I don't think anybody wants to do this, but we're forced into it by economic decisions.”

Board member James Trujillo was asked if he considers district bus drivers part of the core education mission at Parkrose. He responded in an email, “I believe all staff at Parkrose are part of the educational mission of the district. At the same time, some staff have a greater impact on learning outcomes than others.” Addressing the fact that outsourcing would put almost two dozen people out of work, Trujillo added, “These decisions are not taken lightly, and I encourage all community members to consider all the facts prior to making any judgments. This is not a simple situation that can be explained through rhetoric or superficial opinions.”

Like Grassel, Trujillo said he has not made up his mind. “If the board concludes that outsourcing is the best option for kids, I will do my best to ensure that impacted Parkrose staff are treated as fairly and respectfully as possible.”

Of the other Mid-county school districts, Reynolds, Centennial, David Douglas and Gresham-Barlow, only the latter contracts with a private company, First Student.

Don Grotting, superintendent of David Douglas, told the Oregonian in an interview, “Our bus drivers, our cooks, they're part of our educational mission.” Grotting said community members and others periodically have asked whether it makes sense to outsource bus service. So far, however, David Douglas has resisted the suggestion, as it has with food service.

Steve Wilson, a bus driver in Parkrose for four years, also interviewed by the Oregonian, said he wants school board members to know he does more than just chauffeur children to school.

“We're their first contact with school and their last,” he said. “We like to get them off to a good start."

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