School Bus Blues

Since Catalina Foothills changed bus companies to save money, some students have been left behind

Allison Megaw's daughter is a student at Orange Grove Middle School, in the Catalina Foothills School District. According to Megaw, her daughter told her that her friends have to get on the school bus early to save seats. If they don't, one of them might have to sit on the floor.

At the beginning of the school year, different drivers drove Megaw's daughter to school; later, the bus route was combined with another route, Megaw said. All these problems worry Megaw, because her daughter is a type-I diabetic. Megaw worries that if the buses are too crowded, the driver could not see if her daughter had an emergency. She also worries that shuffled bus drivers may not be aware of the needs of the students.

Some of the students at Orange Grove Middle School were passed up by their school buses at the beginning of the school year. Other students were 15 to 20 minutes late to school when their routes were combined.

"Many parents found other ways to bring their kids to school," said Orange Grove principal Phil Woodall.

These problems came after a new company took over the operations of the district's school buses. Durham School Services, based out of Illinois, is the third-largest school transporter in the country. They underbid Citizen Auto Stage, a local company based out of Nogales and Tucson, that had been getting the area's students to and from school for 27 years. The differences in the bids were not available.

Under the new company, three bus routes were combined, said

Terry Downey, assistant superintendent of the Catalina Foothills School District . With combined routes, the students had longer rides to school and back home.

Durham started the year with four bus drivers fewer than they needed to maintain last year's bus routes. When one bus driver left Durham School Services at the beginning of the year, two additional routes were combined at the last minute, Downey said.

The driver who had picked up the combined route got to the additional bus stops sooner than usual. Some of the students and their families didn't hear about the change and missed the bus.

" We had attempted to call parents to let them know, but not everyone was reachable

," Downey said.

Some of the district's drivers complain that Durham was asking them to do too much with too little.

Jeanette Thompson had been with the school district since 1998, driving buses for Orange Grove. She left on the eighth day of school, because Durham was asking her to load "well over 60 kids in the bus," Thompson said.

Although the capacity is 71, Thompson wanted to carry no more than 47, or two kids to a seat.

"If you have any more than 47 for middle and high school students, it leaves them hanging half in and half out of the seats on the bus, and that doesn't account for backpacks and musical instruments," Thompson said.

On the first day of school, Thompson noticed that the bus did not have seat-belt cutters, which are needed to cut out kids if there is a fire. She asked Durham for them, but eight days later, they were still not available.

Sonny Litt drove school buses for the Catalina Foothills School District since 1982 as a relief driver. They fill in when a driver quits or calls in sick, or when a bus goes down on the route. As a relief worker, Citizen guaranteed him four-hour shifts. Durham School Services only offered the relief workers two-hour shifts, Litt said.

"Who's gonna work for two hours? Durham lost 10 to 12 drivers because of this," Litt said.

Ramona Cortez, the bus transportation supervisor for the Catalina Foothills School District, said that they started the year needing six school bus drivers. Now they have two new drivers on the road, with three in behind-the-wheel training. They have no relief drivers but are "continuously looking," Cortez said.

Although Cortez was able to respond to the question about the number of bus drivers, the policy of Durham School Services is to have Chuck Moore, the company's vice president, handle all media questions. He was not made available to the Weekly.

Catalina Foothills is apparently not the only district suffering problems with Durham. According to The Arizona Republic, the Dysart Unified School District, just outside of Phoenix, is having similar problems with Durham. Students are getting to school late or not even getting picked up.

School officials often don't know where the buses are or how late they'll be, said Scott Thompson, Dysart's executive director of business and technology services.

While many parents are unhappy with Durham so far, the State of Arizona may have pressured the Catalina Foothills School District to go to another school bus company, put more students on buses and have longer routes.

"The other factor in their favor was Durham's experience using VersaTrans routing software. The district wanted to operate more efficient bus routes since the dollars from the state for transportation were not offsetting the cost of the services provided," Downey said.

According to a 2003 report by the Office of the Auditor General, the student transportation program's costs of the Catalina Foothills School District were 26 percent higher than comparable districts.

The report and Terry Downey said that the windy, twisting roads of the region and the desire to not combine the elementary, middle school and high school students onto one route made transportation costs higher. The report stated that in order to save money, the district should lease buses which are more than five years old, as well as have more students on the buses. They also wanted the district to house the bus program themselves and not contract out the transportation services.

Other local school districts are suffering from a shortage of bus drivers, and some say the state shoulders some of the blame.

The Sahuarita Unified School District s tarted the school year six bus drivers short, said Fred Huff, the district's director of transportation.

"So far, we've managed to do it because myself, all my staff and my mechanics are all certified to drive, so we have stayed on schedule. Through a lot of team work, we have made it," Huff said.

Huff blames part of the problem of a shortage of school bus drivers on the state, which is adding more requirements for bus drivers, but "no one is adding money," he said.

Vail School District started the school year 12 bus drivers short, said Ron Tone, the transportation supervisor. Tone blamed the shortage on growth.

"Some days, we have to cancel field trips. We are just working on covering the basics of getting kids to and from school," he said.