Payson schools bag new bus

The school bus driver crisis dominated newly hired Payson Unified School District Superintendent Stan Rentz’s first meeting this week.

The Payson School Board agreed to eliminate two key bus routes, forcing parents who live within a 1.5 mile of the campus their children attend to find another way to get the kids to school.

The board also approved a plan to hire three new aides to handle discipline aboard the bus on routes where student behavior has contributed to a rapid turnover among the district’s bus drivers.

The district will also see if it can hire five high school students to ride the elementary school buses in the afternoon to help drivers keep order.

Finally, the board approved the hiring of a new transportation director Mark Henning, who had served as transportation director for five years before leaving to start a ministry.

However, the board tabled a proposal to pay a $700 bonus to both new drivers who stay for a year as well as any other staff member who convinced the driver to apply. The program would have cost an estimated $9,000, but the board decided to hold off on offering the incentives until the district can see if adding the aides to help with discipline will halt the rapid turnover among the ranks of the bus drivers.

“Hopefully this will help the drivers, take the stress off them,” said board president Barbara Underwood. “But does this put an aide on every route?”

Financial director Kathie Manning, whose husband recently resigned as transportation director, said, “We feel like this is a good place to start and then maybe we’ll evaluate it — come back in October when we’re evaluating other issues.”

The average bus driver stays on the job for less than three years and many don’t finish their first year. That might reflect the strain of working a minimum wage job that demands a split shift. But many drivers also said the behavior of the students on some bus routes has made the job stressful.

Emily Wilson, who volunteers at Payson Elementary School, said she happened to ride on the bus of one of the drivers who quit recently. “It was just crazy on that bus — even with me on there.”

The district lost one driver after she allegedly got drunk and crashed a bus into a tree. Several children were injured and she was arrested for driving under the influence.

Drivers have to get a commercial drivers license and undergo extra training. The district pays about $12 an hour, compared to pay of about $18 an hour for other commercial truck drivers in Payson — including drivers for garbage trucks.

The average age of a Payson bus driver is about 55 — so most are retired from other careers. They undergo training that totals 15 hours of classroom time and 20 hours behind the wheel, which is required by state law.

Manning said they’ll put one of the aides on the route that goes all the way to Gisela, with others on two routes that have reported discipline problems in the past.

The board earlier in the meeting also agreed to hire a consulting firm to do a $15,000 salary study districtwide. Underwood asked Rentz to make sure the study compares bus drivers’ salaries not only to other districts, but to other jobs requiring a commercial license.

“I imagine the salary study will cover that,” Manning said. “Bus driver pay is a reason there’s a shortage of bus drivers. You can’t compete with Amazon deliveries or long-haul truckers. But we can include other bus drivers in our study.”

Board member Sheila DeSchaaf said a signing bonus won’t solve the problem caused by low wages. She’s also the community development director for Payson and said recruitment bonuses for police officers had little effect until Payson raised salaries to match competing towns.

“That was the only thing that got us fully staffed,” she said.

Manning added, “Most of our drivers are at the end of their career and it’s more that they don’t want to deal with student discipline.”

She noted that even when the district made bus drivers eligible for benefits four years ago, it didn’t have much impact on recruitment and turnover.

“Well, a $700 bonus is a huge amount for just referring someone, I’ll be frank with you,” said Underwood.

The board ultimately agreed to first put the aides and student workers on the buses to see if that reduces bus driver turnover.

The board also hopes it can recruit more bus drivers after school starts and perhaps restore the two dropped routes, easing the morning and afternoon transportation crisis for people living within 1.5 mile of a campus.

Underwood said, “I am thankful we’re trying something different and I’m really hoping aides will help our bus drivers with why they’ve left.”

Transportation issues caused one other dustup before the meeting ended.

The board readily approved the recommendation to return Mark Henning to the $52,000 a year job running the transportation department he left several years ago. He was one of six applicants screened by a committee. However, Underwood pushed for a contract that offered 25 vacation days rather than the 33 days that has been standard for administrators.

She raised the issue at a previous meeting, saying many administrators couldn’t even use all their vacation days. The district doesn’t pay administrators for unused vacation days when they leave.

Other board members said they would have preferred to wait for the outcome of the salary study before reducing the vacation days one contract at a time.

“Since we’ve already adjusted the vacation days for a couple of contracts, a precedent has been set. But I would have liked to have waited,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock.

Board member Joanne Conlin said the district could always increase the vacation days when Henning’s contract renews next year if the salary study provides a justification.

However, DeSchaaf said the district shouldn’t change policies on things like vacations piecemeal.

In the end, the board approved the contract with 25 days of vacation on a 3-1 vote, with DeSchaaf in opposition.

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