Laster vote is about buses vs. children

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In four years bus drivers have been a major point of discussion at approximately 21 Concordia Parish School Board meetings.

That’s nearly half, and it seems now the buses are driving the educational bandwagon while the children sit on the curbside and watch. And a crash may be coming.

In February of 2004 the drivers requested a pay raise. In May of that year the board agreed to help with the expenses — gas, repairs, oil, etc.

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In June 2004 the board agreed to pay those operational costs for months past.

By November of 2005, the debate over how the operational allowance should be paid was in full swing. The bus drivers and central office staff worked to a compromise. And finally, the spokesman for the drivers said he was satisfied.

In October, the board cut the drivers a check to help with gas costs.

Then, the drivers reneged on the “compromise” and called in sick for work leaving children standing on street corners waiting for a ride.

In May 2006, the district brought in Durham Bus Services — a private company — for talks. Later that summer, the district agreed to contract their bus services to Durham for four years. Under the contract, the schools pay Durham just under $200 a day per Durham bus on the roads, but Durham handles management of the buses and replaces older buses.

By October 2006, the board was up in arms over the Durham contract they’d approved. Every policy, every procedure, every decision regarding the buses became a major point of debate at the monthly board meetings. They yelled at each other, yet no one heard. A committee was formed and administrators devoted hours to resolving the problems.

From April to July 2007, the buses were on the agenda.

And now, the buses are about to cost a good superintendent her job.

Even though the board approved signing with Durham, some board members now allege that the contract wasn’t what they wanted. The superintendent acted on her own, they say.

The drivers, their friends and family and a few board members are upset that the district opted to pay a private company to handle things. That’s taxpayer money that’s not going to local residents, they say.

And that’s a good point.

But for the schools, contracting out transportation was the best decision. It was a business decision.

Sure, they are paying Durham an awful lot of money. But they are paying for a service. They are paying someone to manage an entire wing of the district that obviously eats up time and energy. And they are paying for the long haul. It’s a bill that will save in time and effort many times over in years to come.

Durham knows how to run buses. It’s what they do. They are a proven company with a good reputation. And given a few years, the company would fix years and years of bus problems in the parish.

They are worth the money.

But the school board won’t let Durham do its job. The company agreed to nearly every caveat requested by the board — no school employees were fired, drivers working for the school still report to the school, not Durham and no one lost retirement benefits.

Buses have consumed the parish school board for too long. Every minute debating buses is a minute not spent on the children.

Schools need bus drivers. They need them two times a day. It’s the driver’s job to get children from their house to the school and from the school to their house. Ideally, the driver is friendly, loving and perhaps even educational along the way, but they don’t have to be.

They just need to drive safely.

School management is not about buses. It’s about children.

A superintendent should spend a miniscule amount of time on things like buses and a monumental amount of time on things like reading.

Superintendent Kerry Laster tried to let someone else handle the buses, but her board jerked the chain and decided the part-time, adult employees were more important than the full-time children.

When the board votes on Laster’s contract some board members will vote for buses.

Others will vote for children.

The outcome will affect us all for years to come.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551.