Bishop Unified considers cutting bus service to Benton, Chalfant
According to Bishop Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Barry Simpson, the district is considering eliminating bus service to Chalfant for the 2018-2019 school year.
Simpson said this week that the District does not have enough bus drivers, nor has it been successful in its efforts to hire new bus drivers. He said sufficient funding is available, but that if another bus driver is not hired by next school year, he will be forced to eliminate a bus route.
Chalfant is part of the Eastern Sierra Unified School District (ESUSD). However, enrollment at ESUSD’s Benton school, Edna Beamon Elementary, has declined in the last several years. According to Simpson, the school was once Kindergarten through grade 8, and now only offers grades kindergarten through 5. The next closest ESUSD middle and high schools are in Lee Vining. As a result, many, if not most Benton, Hammil Valley, and Chalfant students enroll in BUSD for middle and high school, under an Interdistrict Agreement. For each of its students who enroll in BUSD, ESUSD pays BUSD roughly $10,000.
Additionally, ESUSD has historically provided a bus to bring students in Benton and Hammil Valley that are enrolled in BUSD to Chalfant, where they, along with students in Chalfant who are enrolled in BUSD, are bused by BUSD to Bishop.
Simpson said the bus to Chalfant and Benton serves 45 to 55 students.
Leslie Allen, a resident of Chalfant who has a kindergartner and a 4th grader who use BUSD’s bus to get to school in Bishop, said she was concerned that kids with parents who did not have access to transportation in Benton will not be able to get to school if BUSD eliminates its bus service to Chalfant. “Some kids have parents who work in Mammoth Lakes, and some kids have parents who don’t leave Benton. It’s a 40-mile commute for those kids,” said Allen.
ESUSD Superintendent Don Clark confirmed in an email that ESUSD was unable to provide bus service from Benton and Hammil Valley to Chalfant this week because a bus driver was stranded in Arizona due to car troubles over Thanksgiving break. Allen said she noticed a substantial decrease in the number of students on the Chalfant bus this week. “Did those kids get to school?” she asked.
Simpson said that it has been difficult to recruit bus drivers in his district since he arrived in the early 2000s. He said he once spent six months driving a bus while working as the principal at Round Valley school to fill in for a bus driver whose position they couldn’t fill.
Simpson said low wages, split shifts, and the part-time nature of the job are all reasons it is difficult to retain and hire bus drivers. He said it is a statewide trend. Simpson said the job requires drug testing and extensive training.
BUSD has tried to retain drivers by offering them work as groundskeepers to allow them to be full-time employees. “The cost of living here is high,” said Simpson. “Somebody can’t move here and make a living as a bus driver.”
He said low wages are part of the problem. Simpson provided the most recent job posting for the position, which offered $15.31 as a starting hourly wage. He said the District is looking at raising that rate and possibly offering bonuses to drivers, but that any salary changes must be negotiated with the union before they can be initiated, a process Simpson said can take time.
BUSD receives transportation funding from the State of California. Simpson said those funds cover about half the cost of busing students to his district’s schools. He said that, according to state law, BUSD is not required to provide transportation to and from school for its students. The district is only legally bound to provide transport for students who receive special education services.
“The real concern is that we have needy students who need to get to school in Benton,” said Simpson, referring to low income students and students who live on the Benton Paiute Tribe Reservation. “They need to be here at school and if we can’t figure this out, it’s going to be very difficult for them to get here. I’m alarmed by that,” said Simpson. He said that if a bus route has to be cut, it seems most fair to cut the only route that services students who don’t live within the district boundaries.
Clark said there is no plan to discontinue bussing from Benton and Hammil Valley to Chalfant at this time, and that the two districts have been discussing transportation options for the region’s students.
Bussing to Chalfant is scheduled for discussion, with no final action to be taken, at the December 14 Bishop Unified School District Board meeting. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Carl Lind boardroom at the Bishop Unified High School Library.