The Payson Unified School District’s transportation department is in turmoil, with the crash of a bus whose driver was cited for drunk driving, the departure of the transportation manager and a shortage of six drivers for the minimum wage, hard-to-fill job.
The Payson School Board fired bus driver Sherri Sessions during its May 20 meeting in the shadow of a May 15 DUI accident that injured three students. Police say she came around a curve, overcorrected, then fishtailed off the road and into a tree. Several children suffered injuries. Police cited her for driving under the influence after receiving the results of a blood test. She’d been working for the district for about a year.
Her departure leaves the district six drivers short.
Moreover, transportation manager Richard Manning — the husband of the district’s finance director — has left his job.
That leaves the department with no leader.
Unless PUSD finds bus drivers before the start of school, the district will struggle to cover its 11 regular and five special education routes that cover a daunting 1,400 miles every day. The district’s drivers also drive hundreds of miles on field trips every month on top of the regular routes.
Payson has unusually high transportation costs, even compared to other rural districts, according to the Arizona auditor general’s annual report on school spending.
Payson spends $3.90 per mile driven, which compares to $3.03 for other “peer” districts and $4.05 statewide.
The district’s costs amount to $1,501 per student, compared to $1,225 for peer districts and $1.301 for the state average. That puts Payson 23 percent above the state average on a per-rider basis. This prompted the auditor general to put the district in the “very high” transportation cost category.
The district has also struggled with its aging fleet of school buses, many of them with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. The old buses break down frequently, forcing the district to constantly shuffle vehicles and send out backup buses to get kids to school. Sometimes, the district fleet suffers multiple breakdowns on the same day.
The problem is made worse by the lack of neighborhood schools in the district. Students attend classes on four different campuses between kindergarten and graduation, shifting frequently. This means they often have to travel across town to get to school. Families with several children will often find them all traveling to different campuses, which would make the loss of bus service a morning and afternoon nightmare for many families.
However, the shortage of bus drivers afflicts most districts in the state, said Superintendent Greg Wyman.
The low unemployment rate makes it hard to find minimum wage workers for a demanding job that requires a commercial driver’s license. Drivers work a difficult split shift, with only nine months of time on the clock per year. That makes it hard for the district to compete with better-paying, private commercial trucking operations.
Moreover, issues involving student discipline on the buses and the heavy responsibility of the job have contributed to turnover, say bus drivers who spoke to the Roundup.
The district’s decision to shift the decision on what to do about behavior problems from the transportation department to the school principals hasn’t worked out as planned, say some former drivers. The shift often resulted in no response at all after an incident on a bus, say some former drivers.
However, the bus driver shortage mostly connects to salaries and working conditions, said Wyman.
PUSD pays drivers just a few cents more than the $12 minimum wage.
“There are a lot of jobs out there that get more money with less responsibility,” he said. “Driving a bus is difficult ... it takes a special person with special talents.”
Wyman drove a UPS truck one time in his life, so he understands “there is a lot to just driving (a commercial vehicle) on the road every day.”
When a driver trans ports children, the bus turns into “a moving classroom,” said Wyman.
Just like a classroom, the driver expects certain behaviors. If those aren’t met, the driver gets involved with discipline.
“We have cameras and it’s multiple cameras on all levels,” said Wyman. “Even then, if we have an incident on the bus we will pull the tapes and review it ... the same can be done with a driver.”
Then there are the hours.
“It’s a split schedule,” said Wyman. “It takes two to three hours in the morning to run routes, then a gap of a couple of hours and then another two to three hours in the afternoon.”
Add to that, driving a school bus is a nine-month a year job. Summers are off.
One bonus? Drivers driving 30 hours per week for nine months qualify for health benefits.
“Drivers received medical, dental and vision benefits,” said Wyman.
Wyman sees a lot of applicants in the 60 to 65 age range for two reasons; one the Payson area population is 60 percent aged 55 and above and two, many of those folks have to wait until they are old enough for Social Security and Medicare to retire.
“You are trying to fill in the financial gap and medical coverage until you hit the correct age,” he said.
Applicants must also pay for their own commercial driver’s license — an added hurdle.
The district does train drivers, said Wyman.
“If you came in today and said, ‘I want to drive,’ the process to get you trained is at least a month,” said Wyman. “We have in-classroom as well as behind-the-wheel-training. The class training may have simulation. Then someone will ride with you for awhile until you’re ready to run a route.”
Each bus driver has a designated morning and afternoon route. Routes go as far south as Jake’s Corner and Gisela and as far north as East Verde Estates.
Other tests include lifting a certain amount of weight and passing a drug test. Continuing education for all school staff includes sexual harassment and other laws. Bus drivers also have annual driving training.
Wyman said if a driver has an accident, the law requires the district to administer a blood test immediately.
“We take (the samples) to an independent group,” he said.
From there, the “transportation laws say you can lose your CDL or get fired,” said Wyman.
Unless the district finds more drivers, it might curtail routes. “Technically, we only legally need to transport special needs kids,” said Wyman.
“If you don’t have enough drivers, you’re going to have to start making some hard decisions,” he said. “We keep the bus driver job open all the time because of the turnover.”