If it ain’t broke, why fix it? That was the question on the minds of several Eastern Sierra Unified School District parents at the ESUSD Board meeting Wednesday night when the discussion of cutting one of the two buses for Bridgeport students was raised.
Currently, Bridgeport students have the option of busing to either Lee Vining High School or Coleville High School. They were given this option a few years ago when ESUSD closed down the Eastern Sierra Academy due to budget constraints, leaving Bridgeport high school students and their parents without an in-town choice.
Since then the two bus routes have allowed both Coleville and Lee Vining high schools to prosper, according to parents Wednesday night because they have similar-sized student bodies.
At an April 3 ESUSD School Board workshop, however, the Board discussed the idea of bringing in a consultant to study ESUSD’s transit system, specifically to look at whether or not a bus route from Bridgeport should be cut with the route from Bridgeport to Lee Vining seemingly on the chopping block.
“Things are going well right now and both schools are thriving,” said Geoff McQuilkin, parent of two Lee Vining Elementary School students. “Busing helps that. So what issues need to be studied? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? You’re going to need to vent these things before a consultant is hired because they are going to ask you these questions.”
Under scrutiny Wednesday night was whether or not the Board had made a decision about hiring a consultant at that April 3 workshop. If it had, it would be in violation of the Brown Act because the workshop was not noticed for action.
“Decisions were made even if no action was taken,” said Pam Haas-Duhart who attended the April 3 workshop. “Why waste money on a study when a decision has already been made?”
She added that Board members came into that workshop with their minds made up and that the phrase “transitional phase-out for a bus” was used.
“Board members are focused on their own agendas and not what’s best for the area they represent,” Haas-Duhart added.
Lee Vining High School teacher, Sarah Taylor as well as Lee Vining parent Stacey Simon both urged the Board to continue busing in both directions, pointing to Mono County’s large geographical base as a way of life.
“It’s worth it to spend a lot of money on transportation,” Taylor said. “Our geography is very spread out and all the kids can’t go to one school. So why change the busing when it has made things super positive and competitive with two, similar-sized high schools? Why set up one school to struggle with a small base?”
“We need to preserve what we have,” Simon added. “Running the bus is a nominal cost of gas and wear and tear. One year is probably the cost of hiring the consultant.” She pointed out that even if Lee Vining students were not on the bus it would still have to drive south from Bridgeport to pick up Mono City students.
ESUSD Superintendent Don Clark, whose contract was extended until 2015 by the Board just prior to the busing conversation on Wednesday, said that the cost of the study would not exceed $5,000.
The consultant that the District is looking at using, Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), has already done an overall study for Inyo and Mono counties, according to Clark.
“But the transit system for Eastern Sierra Unified was deemed a ‘unique animal’ and they didn’t know what to do for us,” Clark said.
Members of the audience asked how the consultant would know what to do for the District now, when it hadn’t before, but no answer was given.
Brianna Brown, a middle school teacher in Bridgeport did speak out in favor of a potential bus cut.
“Bridgeport is a declining enrollment,” Brown said. “Our numbers are getting smaller so we need to look into the future, not at the current situation. Are we cutting other things because of transportation? Next year we’ll be sending two students south and four north. Are we hurting the sites by splitting these small numbers up?”
Taylor did not think splitting small numbers was a bad thing. “Sometimes two to three more students can make a big difference for the basketball team, or whatever,” she said.
Another issue that came up was whether or not it was safer to bus from Bridgeport to Lee Vining or from Bridgeport to Coleville. Arguments were made for both sides, but in a letter from June Lake resident Ann Tozier, she stated that she had statistics from Caltrans (where her husband is employed) that show it is actually safer to drive south.
Dwain Chichester, a Bridgeport resident disagreed, however, saying that his statistics from the Mono County Sheriff’s Department showed it to be safer to drive north. He also felt that it was unfair that as a Bridgeport resident he had to fund two busses with his tax dollars.
Board member Gabe Segura weighed in and was in favor of keeping the busing the way that it is.
“Putting either route on the chopping block would be detrimental,” Segura said. “The best thing for the children is to keep busing to both sides.”
But Board member Jimmy Little felt there was no good reason not to talk about it.
“It’s divisive when we have the passion we have,” Little said. “But the loudest voices don’t make it right. As a Board we also have to listen to the whispers. People have legitimate concerns but don’t want to voice them at the podium.”
Little said the purpose of hiring a consultant would be to provide an objective opinion.
Board member Bob Tems added that he would be in favor of keeping the busses running as they are now, but that the District should have a plan in place to be prepared if Governor Jerry Brown ever gets his way and cuts huge chunks of funding for transportation.
“We’ll give a choice as long as the funding is there,” Tems said, adding that he felt that the parents of Bridgeport students should have the biggest voice in the discussion.
Segura, however, disagreed. “We all have an equal voice in this. Open election boundaries mean that everyone has a voice. The school board should not be a soap box for anyone who’s having an issue at home choosing where to go.”
Some have said that Board member Jimmy Little’s daughter wants to go to Lee Vining but he wants her to go to Coleville. If there’s no bus route to Lee Vining then he doesn’t have to be the bad guy.
Board member Melinda Melendrez agreed with Segura. “Make your decisions at home and keep busing both ways,” she said. “Kids are the bottom line. Who are you to say what’s going to happen in the future?”
She also felt that people who are unhappy needed to step up. “Provide a letter if you don’t want to speak up,” she said. A stack of more than 100 letters from concerned community members was provided to each Board member.
Melendrez also felt that giving Bridgeport students the choice of going north and south was actually allowing them to become responsible adults.
The last Board member to speak was John Peters who said that the comment about the “transitional bus phase out” came from him but that the phase out of a bus was not discussed one way or another.
“I won’t debate what was said,” Peters explained. “I’m a businessman and from a fiscal standpoint I feel we have to look at planning seriously. There are people out there who are experts on the business of schools. Outside information can be refreshing, especially in a controversial situation. We should learn as much as we can.”
Peters added that the Board was working to air out all the information in public forums and was representing the entire district.
No action was taken on Wednesday. Continued discussions are expected.