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Parkrose retains bus fleet

Prescott Elementary students, from left, second-grader La'Zaiala Collins, fifth graders Hawa Omar, Emaujah Hayes and Ivon Torres-Barrios, joined the protest against outsourcing transportation services; however, they won't have to worry about losing their bus driver, as the school board voted 3-2 to reject the idea.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
New Parkrose School Board member Erick Flores is all smiles after his vote to reject a resolution outsourcing transportation to a private company-an issue that roiled the community for months-helped defeat it.
By a 3-2 vote, the Parkrose Board of Education (BOE) rejected a resolution to outsource bus service and sell its fleet to private contractor First Student.

Emotions ran high before the February meeting with nearly 100 opponents of outsourcing rallying and then filling chairs for the nearly four-hour meeting.

BOE Chair Ed Grassel and James Trujillo voted to outsource, while Vice Chair Thuy Tran, Mary Lu Baetkey and Erick Flores voted to reject the resolution, which not only would let 19 drivers go, but also would sell Parkrose's bus fleet, an irrevocable decision.

New members James Trujillo, Mary Lu Baetkey and Erick Flores were in office seven months before this vote that roiled the community for months.

The idea to outsource transportation originated with the previously constituted school board as a way to save money adding days to the school year lost in former cuts.

Conventional wisdom had Flores and Baetkey against outsourcing, with Grassel and Trujillo following the lead of Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray and Business Services Director Mary Larson, firm outsourcing advocates.

Tran, who was the swing vote, said it was “quoted” to her-she did not say by whom-that 25 percent of district human relations problems emanate from the transportation department. She also said that out of the department's 22 employees, only four have been in the district for 10 years. “Is that an employee problem, or is that a leadership problem?” she asked rhetorically. “How are we loving our people so they can stay with us longer and take care of our children?”

Trujillo, a senior manager of Human Resources for the Port of Portland, who understands issues with employees, voted to outsource transportation and HR issues with it.

The administration previously spent $3,500 on a study by an industry expert that concluded outsourcing would save some money. Citing its own study, which claimed any savings through outsourcing would be negligible, the Oregon Schools Employees Association, the union representing drivers, disagreed with conclusions reached in the district's study, bringing its own expert to speak at a school board meeting.

Flores, whose position on the issue has been clear since the beginning, said, “The only people I know who are in favor of this are the superintendent, Mary and now Ed.” He added, “The community loves the school buses, and they wish to keep them. This is not a difficult choice for me. This is the easiest choice since I've been on the board.”

Baetkey, a frequent critic of district administration, said this issue and others leftover from the previous board have haunted her. “There has not been one day I have not thought about this since September, including Christmas. It's really an important thing.”

“There's only one group of people here who don't get to vote, and that's the kids,” said Grassel, who considers himself a serious, deliberative advocate of the district's children. “And I'm here to represent them and try to do what's best for their personal self-interest. Some of us have the opportunity to champion their causes. And I try to champion their causes in the best way I possibly can.”

He added he has spent a lot of time on this issue. “It has been an agonizing decision. I spent more time on the busing RFP (Request for Proposal), than I did on the $63 million bond project. I spent over eight hours versus three hours evaluating architects. This has been very thorough.”

In an email after the meeting, Grassel said, “The board made a decision to retain local control of our bus drivers and transportation services.” He added, “The board will explore other choices to improve bus safety, restore school days for our students and lost wages for Parkrose employees.”

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