Winds of change bring dispiriting challenges

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on June 1, 2003

In Oceanside, Calif., approximately 5,000 middle and high school students who previously rode a school bus will have to find another means of getting to and from school during the upcoming school year.

Faced with a devastating budget shortfall, the school board at Oceanside Unified School District slashed the transportation budget by $1.5 million for the 2003-04 school year. And more transportation cuts may be necessary for 2004-05.

The dollar figure doesn’t tell the whole story, at least not in terms of the human toll. Twenty-five employees have received layoff notices, including 19 drivers, five bus attendants and one parts clerk. In California, jobs are especially hard to come by. We can only wish them luck in their pursuit of another source of income.

Meanwhile, John Farr, the transportation director in Oceanside, is retiring June 30, and his position will be replaced by a lower-pay transportation manager position. About 10 miles east of Oceanside, at Vista Unified School District, the transportation director position was not downgraded — it was eliminated. Twenty-six transportation professionals with nowhere to go in the morning.

Hand-wringing across America
Oceanside and Vista are by no means alone in this bus-related bloodletting. Across the country, school boards are taking drastic measures to bring their budgets under control. Among the strategies adopted by school boards: increasing walking distances, consolidating bus stops, imposing parent-pay systems, curtailing busing for activity trips and, in some cases, eliminating home-to-school transportation altogether.

If these were short-term “adjustments,” the situation would not appear so dire. But, as we all know, once cuts are imposed, it’s difficult to convince budget planners and the powers-that-be that the services should be restored once the economy recovers and funding becomes plentiful.

After a few years, many communities will forget that transportation was once more comprehensive. And suggestions to return funding to the transportation department will be met with skepticism: “We need more books, not buses.” “How can we give teachers raises if we keep pumping money into the bus yard?” “Since when did transportation become a high-priority budget item?” How quickly they forget.

Can’t get any respect?
As John puts it, “We are the Rodney Dangerfields of school districts.” Not getting any respect from teachers and administrators is a way of life for many transportation professionals. Part of that image problem, John says, stems from the inconveniences forced upon these “colleagues” by the transportation department, such as changing bell times for greater transportation efficiency, creating rigid dismissal schedules so students can catch their buses and bringing even more discipline problems to their doorstep.

Yes, there are many school districts that recognize and respect the transportation program, whether it’s publicly or privately operated. But when tough budget cuts have to be made, school boards first scrutinize ancillary support or, to put it another way, look everywhere except the classroom.

I mentioned earlier that John is retiring. That’s not quite accurate. He may be leaving Oceanside, but he’s not leaving the business. At press time, he was prepared to seek a new transportation director position, for at least three more years. “In spite of all these budget problems, I love the job, the people and the challenges,” John says. “Bring it on!”

My guess is that John is not alone. Despite the current onslaught of challenges, most of you probably feel the same way. Curtailing bus service is a dangerous way to save dollars, but these are extraordinary times. The key is to maintain the highest quality of safe service that diminished budgets will allow. Just one more test that I’m sure you’re prepared to pass.

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