Return of Merced Union bus routes still far off

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJuly 29, 2013 

Due to a shortage of drivers, full restoration of school bus service for Merced Union High School District students won't be possible this fall, as promised by district officials last spring.

Leonard Kahn, the district's assistant superintendent of business services, believes full service for students living more than 2½ miles from their campus will be implemented at some point during the 2013-2014 school year, once prospective part-time drivers are certified.

Thirty-one prospective drivers attended a July 9 informational meeting and 16 of them are attending the requisite 20-hour classroom training, to be followed by a 20-hour behind-the-wheel class, Kahn said.

All candidates who pass the classroom and behind-the-wheel training will be sponsored for the California Highway Patrol's certification exams. However, there is only one CHP officer assigned to school bus issues, so that may be the bottleneck in the process, Kahn said.

Travis Kirk, the district's director of facilities and transportation, is taking the classroom part of the bus driver training so he can be fully informed about the driving process.

"It's a great opportunity," Kirk said. "It's a job people can embrace. Some have been doing it (driving a school bus) for decades. They can make a positive connection with students."

Since June, the district has been seeking drivers willing to work a 3.75-hour day as a permanent part-time contractor, earning $15 to $16 an hour. Drivers will be contracted for 180 days a year and can be eligible to do extra driving for athletic teams, bands, drama and choir events on out-of-town activities, Kahn said.

Kirk said the need for bus drivers is greater than just the high school district. Kahn is hoping more drivers can be recruited and be part of a countywide hiring pool.

Willie Wohltman, vice president of California School Employees Association Chapter No. 252, doesn't think the high school district will have enough drivers to restore the 2½-mile radius pupil transportation until October or November.

Wohltman said the union initially wanted its drivers to be full time with benefits; MUHSD trustees furloughed 15 bus drivers nearly 18 months ago and cut back bus service to students living at least five miles from their campus.

In its bargaining with trustees earlier this year, CSEA members agreed to modify their contract and permit part-time drivers. Wohltman said the union made concessions, doing whatever was necessary to keep as many employees working as possible and provide more bus service.

Part-time bus drivers won't be able to support a family on what they make, Wohltman said.

The "carrot," he added, is the district offering extra pay for athletic events and special activities.

Full-time too expensive

Kahn said it would be very expensive to bring back full-time bus drivers. He is hoping the district will be able to partner with the Workforce Investment Board on bus driver training.

Merced Transportation is providing the classroom and behind-the-wheel training, Kahn said. He is hoping that classes that run continually that they will be able to create a pool of drivers for the district and other agencies.

Two part-time drivers are needed per route, one for morning and the other for afternoon routes. If 12 to 18 drivers can be hired, the 2½-mile service can be restored, Kahn said.

Kahn said more prospective bus drivers responded to the district's online and newspaper advertisements than anticipated. The district also had a school bus parked in front of Merced High School on West Olive Avenue with a large sign seeking bus drivers. The district office is still getting phone calls from people interested in driving a school bus.

"The assumption is made that not all 16 candidates will successfully complete the required components of training," Kahn said. "However, the training will continue at least quarterly throughout the year in order to develop a large pool of qualified-certified school bus drivers in the county."

Kahn said the area's high unemployment rate, coupled with the fact that some people aren't looking for full-time jobs, should make the bus driver jobs popular.

"If we can get some traction, that will not only serve our needs but the needs of other transportation agencies as well," Kahn said.

Kahn said community meetings to address transportation issues will be held early to mid-August.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@merced sunstar.com.

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