By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Preschoolers board Lorrie Hurn’s bus in Potter Valley.
As a student growing up in Potter Valley, Paul Monlux rode a bus to school every day. He always looked forward to talking about the day’s events with his friend, Earl Preffer, the bus driver.
“We called him Cooter,” he recalls. “He was like a rock star to kids. He was one of those teddy bear kind of guys who seems a little rough around the edges, but is all about safety and kids.”
Monlux grew up, went to college in Los Angeles and served in the Navy. Eventually he moved back to Potter Valley. A year ago, he was hired as a bus driver for the Potter Valley Community Unified School District. Training him for the job was none other than Cooter, who then promptly retired.
“Just like Cooter, I always smile, say good morning and tell the kids to have a nice day when I pick them up,” says Monlux, a member of Potter Valley Classified Employees Association (PVCEA). “A lot of these kids don’t have stability in their homes. But one solid thing they do know is that the bus driver is going to be there for them every morning, smiling and saying hello.”
For a while it seemed uncertain whether the bus driver would continue to show up every morning in Potter Valley and other communities. In January, it looked like the end of the line for most school buses due to budget cuts. Gov. Brown cut $248 million in state funding for school transportation as part of the trigger cuts, making California the first state in the nation to completely eliminate funds for busing. Then lawmakers granted districts a reprieve with SB 81, supported by CTA and the Education Coalition, which will transform proposed midyear school bus cuts into a general-purpose reduction that will impact K-12 districts evenly. After signing SB 81, the governor stated that he wants to replace specific transportation funds next year with a new block grant funding system that would allow districts to fund bus service if necessary, according to a weighted formula.
The reprieve was good news in Potter Valley, since many of the district’s 239 students travel 25 miles or more to school each way on the district’s two buses. Two years ago, the district ended buses for preschoolers and eliminated all transportation for after-school sports events and field trips to cut costs.
Enough is enough, say community members.
“If they had cut transportation further, it would have been disastrous,” says Duval “Sam” Phillips, PVCEA president. “It could mean closure of our district.”
Monlux and fellow PVCEA member Lorrie Hurn, a bus driver for 26 years, also worry about the possible loss of employment.
“It’s scary,” says Hurn. “It’s my job, and it’s what I have done for so long. I love these kids. It would be really hard for me and for many people in this community to do without a school bus.”
Bus rides provide equal access
Advocates believe that if school buses stop rolling, it will not only end a cherished American tradition, but also limit access to public schools for students who don’t live within walking distance.
“It would be terrible, because school buses are a lifeline connecting students to public education,” says CTA President Dean Vogel. “If buses are eliminated, there may not be public transportation to take up the slack. Students may have no way to travel from isolated areas to the larger world of school, friends and sports. It would put an unfair burden on their families, who may already be suffering economically.”
Eliminating buses would increase congestion on roads and could also put more students at risk, adds Vogel, since records show school buses are safer for transporting students than cars. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, school buses make about 25 percent of trips taken by U.S. children during normal commuting hours, but account for just 2 percent of deaths and 4 percent of injuries sustained by children traveling to school. In comparison, roughly 74 percent of accidental deaths and 84 percent of injuries suffered by students commuting to school occur in automobiles.
Unlike most states, California doesn’t require schools to provide busing except in limited circumstances, including special education. California also covers less of the cost than other states — on average about 40 percent, according to California Department of Education officials — and ranks last in school ridership with just 16 percent of California school children taking buses to school. Once free, school bus transportation now costs families hundreds of dollars for an annual bus pass in many communities. While some districts spend little or nothing on buses, it can be a huge expense for schools located in rural communities.
A rural community fights back
In southern Humboldt County, teachers, parents and students were so angry over the possibility of losing buses that they organized a field trip — by school bus, of course — to Sacramento on Jan. 24, where they gave legislators an earful about the burden it would put on students and their families if busing were to be cut in their isolated community, which encompasses 773 square miles for 772 students. The tiny school district made a lot of noise and received a lot of media attention when it came to making a case for buses. The school community is hopeful that the layoff notices issued to 11 transportation workers will be rescinded.
“It was a really effective protest,” says Leslie Yale, a South Fork High School teacher and member of the South Humboldt Teachers Association (SHTA), who traveled to the Capitol for the event. “We paid a visit to our legislators, including Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro and Senator Noreen Evans.”
Two school buses caravanned for the protest.
“It would be devastating in many ways for the rural community if there were cuts to school transportation,” says fellow South Fork teacher and SHTA member Aletta Sauer. “It would cause a tremendous increase in traffic on our country roads, which are narrow, winding and steep with no stoplights. There’s a lot of poverty, and many of our parents don’t own vehicles that are capable of making drives like that regularly, up and down the mountain, or have time in their workday to drive their children, some of whom travel an hour or more each way.”
If the buses stop rolling, says Sauer, many families would opt for homeschooling or independent study. The district, she fears, could cease to exist. According to the school secretary, six parents moved their children out of the district because they were worried bus service would end.
Students were celebrating the news that buses would continue, and were delighted that they were able to play a role in the reversal of transportation cuts.
“It would have been very hard for me, because I ride the bus two hours each way to get to school,” says eighth-grader Fawna Meeks. “If they eliminated buses, I would probably have to go to independent study, because my mom is sick and not able to drive me. We wouldn’t have enough money for gas. It would really be a big deal, because kids our age need to interact with other kids, and it would prevent a lot of kids from being able to go to school.”
“It would also be hard on me,” says Drew Yates, also in eighth grade. “Without buses, I would be homeschooled. I would definitely like to see the buses stay.”
Student safety is jeopardized
“I tell every child to have a blessed day — not just a good day,” says Imogene “Vickey” Johnson. “I am not just a school bus driver. I consider myself a counselor, a second mother and a friend who takes them to and from school.”
Johnson, a bus driver for Redlands Unified School District for eight years, fears that children will be put at risk without buses and caring drivers to ensure their safe passage.
“Sometimes when we pick them up it is still dark out in the morning,” explains Johnson, a member of the Redlands Education Support Professionals Association (RESPA). “I’m definitely worried about their safety.”
Two years ago, the district eliminated all high school busing and extended the bus boundaries for middle school and elementary schools, says Jolene Tripp, RESPA president and a bus driver for 10 years. With fewer routes, drivers lost jobs and students had increased difficulties getting to school.
“We just keep on making cuts and putting everything on the chopping block until there is nothing left to chop,” says Tripp. “I worry that without busing, more students will drop out. It’s hard enough to keep students in school. Why put one more barrier in their way?”
Urban areas need buses, too
More than half of the nearly 800 students attending 186th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles rely on school buses to transport them through a dangerous urban area.
“Without buses, our students would have to walk down a very busy street and cross a freeway onramp,” says Rebecca Johnson, a pre-kindergarten teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles member. “Our school is located in an industrial area that is heavily traveled by trucks. There is also a lot of gang activity. A few years ago, a young girl was shot to death by gang members. Understandably, parents are very nervous, because they rely on the school bus to get their kids to and from school safely.”
186th Street Elementary School has a “late bus” so students can participate in after-school programs such as tutoring and classes in art, music and dance, which help close the achievement gap. Last year, funding for the late bus was cut, but it was restored after parents signed petitions and sought private donations to help cover costs. The school is one of seven in the district that provide transportation for students; LAUSD officials had planned to sue the state to halt the school bus cuts.
“Most of our parents are low-income, and many of them don’t drive,” says Johnson. “If we eliminate buses, we’re just taking one more thing away from the neediest population.”