If you live within a mile of a Payson school campus, your child can’t take the bus to that campus in the fall, the Payson School Board decided this week.
The district came up two drivers short of what it needs to maintain its full route schedule, due to constant turnover, low salaries and student discipline problems.
The school board on Monday directed incoming Superintendent Stan Rentz to work with the newly established shuttle bus service in town to try to adjust routes to get at least some students within the one-mile radius to school in the mornings.
Board members worried about the safety of children walking a mile to school in a town short on sidewalks, especially if they must cross the state highway. The board directed Rentz to also look into establishing a cadre of school crossing guards — likely volunteers given the district’s financial restraints.
The shift will likely cause major headaches across town. This is compounded by the large percentage of working parents and the system that concentrates each grade level at a single campus, rather than relying on a network of neighborhood schools. Families with several children attending different campuses may find themselves with a major logistical problem getting their children to and from school.
However, the district could reinstate the routes if it can find enough bus drivers.
The Payson School Board approved the plan to curtail routes this week at a five-hour session where it also adopted the district’s $16 million 2019-20 budget.
The district in 2019-20 will spend $1.4 million on student transportation, down just slightly from this year. The number of positions in transportation will actually increase from 23 full-time equivalents to 26.
Chief Financial Officer Kathie Manning said the district has a total of 17 drivers for the upcoming school year, including two drivers still in training for their certification. Drivers include nine regular drivers, five for the special ed buses, one trip driver and two substitute drivers.
The state recently increased the requirements for drivers, including fingerprinting and background checks. The job pays barely above minimum wage and requires many drivers to work a split shift — half in the morning, half in the afternoon.
The transportation director recently resigned and the district hopes to hire a new transportation director this week.
Manning told the board “due to our inability to fill two open driver positions, we will need to enforce the walk zone to a one-mile radius from the schools. This is a bit more generous than the state allows, which is one mile for elementary and middle school and 1.5 miles for high school.”
She noted that Payson for the past eight years has averaged a nearly 50 percent turnover rate among bus drivers. “Research shows that student discipline is among the top contributors to bus driver turnover,” Manning said.
The district recently tried to cope with student behavior problems on the buses by making the school site principals responsible for disciplining students, rather than the transportation department. Bus drivers speaking off the record have told the Roundup that discipline problems increased because the principals don’t have the time to deal with individual incidents.
Manning said the district will use the money it saves from the two empty bus driver positions to pay for two bus assistant positions to ride on the buses on routes with the most discipline problems.
“This will increase student safety, enabling the driver to concentrate on driving while the assistant handles student management,” she said.
This year the district maintained five regular education routes and one special education midday run involving a van and two assistants, rather than a driver. In the fall, the district will cut two regular education routes, leaving parents to figure out how to get their kids to school if they live within a mile of campus.
The board also approved several programs to recruit more drivers, including paying a $200 bonus to any employee who refers an applicant, plus a $200 bonus for any trainee who completes the certification program. If that new bus driver completes a year of service, the referring employee and the bus driver would both get $500 bonuses.
The cost would total $1,400 per new driver. If the district recruits five drivers as a result, it would cost $8,600. The savings from the reduced number of routes would help cover that additional cost.
Manning noted that if the district can find more drivers, it could restart the canceled routes with money from the contingency fund.
Payson’s cost of transportation will increase from $2.64 per mile to $2.69 per mile under the just-adopted budget. The 2018 Arizona auditor general’s report concluded transportation remains the only area in which Payson has “very high” costs, compared to other districts. The auditor general calculated Payson spends $1.573 per rider and $3.96 per mile, compared to a state average of $1.198 per rider and $3.84 per mile. The Payson budget presentation didn’t explain the big difference in cost-per-mile between the auditor general and district figures.Payson has also struggled to keep its fleet of aging buses running, having several with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. The district did get a new bus this year with money from the state. However, the state has for years refused to fund full district capital needs, despite court rulings.