Bus drivers call in sick after Merced high school district layoffs; students left without rides

12 of the 18 transportation employees called in sick, district says

and VICTOR A. PATTON/vpatton@mercedsunstar.comApril 12, 2012 

Several Merced Union School District bus drivers and mechanics called in sick Thursday morning after being laid off, leaving an unknown number of students without rides to school.

The drivers were among the 18 transportation positions cut Wednesday night by the district's board of trustees, who said the layoffs were necessary due to difficult financial times. Fifteen people were affected by the decision, while the three other positions cut had been vacant.

Ten bus drivers and two mechanics called in sick, according to Wynn Simon, director of transportation for the district. That affected six of the 19 home-to-school routes the district runs in the morning.

Some of the areas affected by the absences included Beachwood, Buhach and South Merced. Wynn said the district made automated calls from each school site to the parents letting them know there was a disruption at the schools.

About 1,400 kids use the home-to-school transportation each day in the district.

So far, no one has acknowledged whether the absences were part of an organized campaign. Some bus drivers, such as Kathy Upson, said stress related to the board's decision has taken an emotional and physical toll. Upson, who is being laid off, said she couldn't sleep after Wednesday night's decision, got a "really bad stress headache" and called in sick.

She was sorry the kids had to walk in the rain to school. "When they first did this a month ago, it seriously hit me physically," she said. "If it comes to a point where you're not being responsible to your kids and driving a bus in that situation, you don't drive in that condition."

MUHSD officials hadn't released any attendance numbers Thursday afternoon for the district's school sites. Some students, however, said the impacts are obvious. Andrew Gutter, a 14-year-old Merced High student, said only 14 of about 30 students showed up for his first class Thursday morning.

Simon hoped driver turnout would improve Friday. "I know this is a grievous thing. The news is bad but we still have an obligation to get these kids to school," he said.

Simon said the district had all the routes covered to drop off kids at home Thursday afternoon after borrowing three drivers from Atwater Elementary School. There would also be seven regular bus drivers, three substitute bus drivers from Merced High School and two school staff who would drive buses.

Lee Vang sat in his car Thursday afternoon outside Merced High, waiting for his three kids, age 17, 16 and 15. Usually, he said, all three are picked up and dropped off by the bus near their West Third Street home.

"Every time the bus is there, today it wasn't there," he said, adding he'd have to continue to transport his kids if the buses didn't run.

Similarly, Juan Serna's 16-year-old daughter takes the bus to and from home near their R and 10th Street home. He was in the school parking lot waiting to pick up his daughter, who's a junior. "They expect her to walk? With gas prices the way they are, some parents can't afford to drop off their kids," he said.

"It's rough," he said. Serna said he would never let her walk home from school, regardless of her age.

As a result of the cuts, home-to-school bus transportation will only be provided for students who live outside of a five-mile walking-distance radius from school, or in areas where there's no access to public transportation. The district generally doesn't bus students from inside a radius of 2.5 miles from school. Students who live inside the five-mile radius will need to rely on public transportation to get to school.

The atmosphere was somber at MUHSD's transportation division on Thursday, where the district stores its buses. Darla LaSalle, a route planner and bus driver, wept at her desk, speaking of how her fellow bus drivers are like family. LaSalle said many of the absent bus drivers were probably sick because of the board's decision. "It's they're so upset, they shouldn't be driving. (The spate of layoffs) was devastating news," LaSalle said, wiping her eyes with a tissue.

Many drivers such as LaSalle say the trustees' decision will pose a danger to student safety, as many students will now have to walk longer distances to school. Some bus drivers have said that will make the students vulnerable to strangers and pedophiles. Others have also said many of the roads, particularly in the rural areas, don't have sidewalks, and are unsafe for students walking to school. "It's not only about us. It's about the kids," said Sabrina Ford, a MUHSD transportation worker.

Although students outside the five-mile distance radius from school will be bused, many will have to walk up eight miles for school, LaSalle said, because they'll need to travel on smaller roads and streets.

LaSalle said the impact will also be felt by working parents who depend on the bus service to get their kids to school. "If you work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., are you going to drop your kid off at school at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. in the morning?" LaSalle said. "There's going to be a lot of kids affected."

The last day of employment for the laid-off transportation workers will be June 30, LaSalle said.

Today, district has a total of 25 transportation employees and seven substitute drivers, LaSalle said. After the layoffs, the district will have five full-time drivers.

MUHSD officials have said the cuts are necessary in the event that Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative fails on the November ballot.

Unless action is taken, officials say they could be $3.4 million in the red by the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

Managing editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpattton@mercedsunstar.com

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