Restoration of at least some busing for area high school students could be in the works if Merced Union High School District administrators and the union representing bus drivers can agree on a revised contract.
The trustees then would have to approve those details at a special meeting.
Although trustees took no action Wednesday night after hearing a report on possible busing options, the stage was set to follow a March 20 bargaining session with the California School Employees Association, which represents bus drivers.
The current contract with the district prohibits drivers from working part time.
More than 60 students, parents and community residents crowded the Golden Valley High School library as trustees weighed options to restore bus service, which was cut back dramatically nearly a year ago.
Gloria Coulombe, CSEA Chapter 252 president, said the union is close to reaching an agreement with the district for its 2012-13 salary and working conditions package.
She said the union, which represents 340 classified or nonteaching employees, is open to allowing part-time school bus drivers.
There are six bus routes left for the district covering Merced, Atwater and Livingston campuses and six remaining drivers. Last year, 15 bus drivers were furloughed when trustees eliminated busing for students living within five miles of the campus they attend.
Board President Ida Johnson wants to see bus service restored as early as next month rather than the next school year. She added she is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
She suggested lobbying the CSEA to change the part-time contract prohibition and scheduling the special board meeting once a union agreement is reached.
Parent Steven Walters once again lobbied trustees to restore bus service.
"Our kids are still in danger," Walters said. "The only safe solution is to reinstate busing. We (parents) did our part on Proposition 30."
Proposition 30 increased taxes on earnings over $250,000 for seven years and sales taxes by ¼ cent for four years, to fund schools
He criticized the district's paying employees for out-of-state travel to conferences and workshops, saying that money could be used to bus students. He was told training sessions are required and funds for the travel comes from other sources.
Leonard Kahn, assistant superintendent for business, said the state has not been increasing funding for school bus transportation for decades. He said the supply of available bus drivers is thin in Merced County.
Merced City Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling and fellow council members sent the district a March 4 letter urging that school bus service be restored.
Rawling told trustees Wednesday she hoped the letter wasn't perceived as bullying. The city and district have worked well in the past, she said, and they can work together to tackle the transportation issue in current tough economic times.
Trustee Dave Honey said the district is paying $130,000 to police departments for school resource officers and next year will have five officers, pointing out that is enough money to restore transportation.
"It's kind of a two-way street," Honey said. "There is only so much money and the costs keep going up and up. It really isn't the responsibility of the district to do that (provide officers on campus)."
Trustee William Snyder said the quicker the issue is resolved with the CSEA, the quicker trustees can act.
Trustee Dora Crane said the special board meeting is needed after the March 20 bargaining sessions with CSEA representatives.
Kahn displayed a chart showing it would cost $124,500 to add one part-time bus driver for the next fiscal year, or $233,500 for three part-time drivers. To add six part-time drivers would total $397,000; nine part-time drivers would add $560,500 in costs.
The district has 28 school buses, eight of them the old-style Crown type and the others newer Bluebird-type buses, Kahn said.
Melissa Kelly Ortega, a parent, thanked trustees for starting the conversation about restoring bus service.
"I know that all of you want to get our young people to school safely, on time and ready to learn, so I know you are carefully considering all the options," she said, "even one or two that haven't been presented to you by staff tonight, to ensure all of our children get the quality education they deserve and desperately need."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.