July 13, 2005 - It's not the prestige of her job but rather the students who ride her bus who keep Kim Taylore coming back for a modest $14,000 per year.

"When they're on our bus, we think of them as 34 sons and daughters," said Taylore, who is entering her fourth year as a bus driver in the Marana Unified School District. "They need us, so we're not going to let them down."

Taylore is just one of several bus drivers in the large district who take pride in their work but say they're increasingly becoming dissatisfied with certain conditions of the job. Most recently, a proposal to reorganize the district's transportation department has a handful of bus drivers complaining they were left out of the process.

During a June 14 school board meeting at which Transportation Director Don Powers sought the governing board's approval to eliminate some positions while upgrading others, a large crowd of bus drivers showed up in opposition. As a result, the board tabled voting on the proposal until a committee, including bus drivers and other employees of the department, can meet to give input.

"Some questions came up and we want answers," said Board President Bill Kuhn.

Bus drivers claim morale has dropped to an all-time low while a laundry list of problems, ranging from low wages to subsequent high turnover rates, have run rampant in what they consider a short-staffed department. On top of everything, they're outraged that Powers has proposed eliminating a route driver while the district continues to experience rapid growth.

"I haven't seen this much anger since I started with the district," Taylore said. "We weren't allowed any input about what's going to happen to our future, and this is our future this man is messing with. Mr. Powers doesn't seem to realize he has to answer to his drivers as well as the higher-ups."

Bus drivers confirmed rumors last week that a walkout was tentatively planned for the first day of school on the afternoon shift, but whether that happens may be contingent upon their concerns being addressed.

Powers' reorganization plan involves a handful of changes that would create a middle management in the department while slightly modifying how it handles training drivers. The changes amount to a net savings of $3,240 to the district, according to materials he presented to the board.

Powers was reluctant to talk about any specifics of his proposal when contacted by the EXPLORER, but offered this comment:

"The goal is to create a middle management structure that can accommodate the managerial and operational needs of 175 employees. I'm putting forth what I feel is in the best interest of the district."

Powers was hired last June to assume duties as full-time director of the transportation department, which some argued had been poorly managed and needed revamping. The district settled a lawsuit out of court April 25, paying $275,000 to the family of a girl who was allegedly molested by her bus driver in 2003.

The family accused the district of negligently allowing Bob Thomas to single-handedly manage the transportation department on a part-time basis. The sworn statements of several witnesses, including an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer responsible for investigating the district, suggested that a lack of oversight allowed many problems to occur in the department. However, the district has not publicly admitted any wrongdoing and maintains that hiring Powers was not an admittance of any inefficiencies.

Sharon Woolridge, a secretary in the transportation department, and Debbie Montes, a bus driver and vice president of the Marana Education Support Professionals, expressed their concerns to board members June 14.

Woolridge, who estimated 75 or more bus drivers were in attendance after learning of the reorganization only the day before, said she thought Powers was trying to keep the reorganization a secret by sneaking it through in the summer. She said phone calls quickly went out to bus drivers when the reorganization was placed on the meeting agenda.

Montes mentioned low wages and a decline in morale as she asked the board to consider sending Powers' plans to a committee for review. Montes said last week that she's happy to have "a foot in the door with the board" but that she's hesitant to comment on the issue right now.

"I think there are changes that we can make," she said.

Board member Albert Siqueiros made the motion, seconded by Dan Post, to table the proposal until more input is considered. Siqueiros' motion passed unanimously, but only after Vice President Pat Teager made a motion of her own, seconded by Kuhn, to approve the reorganization. No vote was taken on Teager's motion as the board decided to table it.

"After discussion, we decided we have a new superintendent, so let's give him an opportunity to review it since he's the one who'll be living with the reorganization," Kuhn said. "Then we can go on it."

District spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the district is in the early stages of structuring a "transportation advisory committee," which will meet in August to review the proposal before it goes back to the board. The committee will include Powers, bus drivers, mechanics, attendants, dispatchers, a supervisor and the district's finance director.

Powers, who is in his first year on the job, was not directed by the district to make any changes but was encouraged to "look at daily operations" of the department, Crawley said.

"We're wanting to make sure dollars are allocated appropriately; we want to make sure individuals' responsibilities are being split so they're not ineffective; we're upgrading some positions," she said. "We are also adding a position to be located literally at Marana High because the volume at the bus yard over there has increased substantially."

According to materials presented to the board, Powers is proposing the following changes:

€ Creation of a new position titled "Operations Manager" at a salary of $34,000.

€ Elimination of one route driver and one parts specialist to pay the salary of the operations manager.

€ Upgrading four standby bus drivers to newly created positions of "trainer/lead driver" while eliminating overtime pay for trainers.

€ Reverting Dennis Cox's "trainer supervisor" position to his old description of "field supervisor" at a salary of $36,000.

€ Assigning one of three dispatch positions to the bus yard at Marana High School.

€ Upgrading one vehicle mechanic supervisor position to the newly created position of "shop foreman" and upgrading one mechanic position to an afternoon "mechanic supervisor" position.

€ Upgrading a "Clerk I" position to "Clerk II" to include the increased responsibility of generating and tracking purchase orders.

With the addition of an operations manager, Powers is proposing restoring and enhancing the office supervisor position once held by Woolridge, who was demoted to a secretary position last summer. The elimination of her position came in tandem with hiring Powers as full-time director of the department.

Powers, who spent 16 years working for the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, replaced Thomas, who was receiving a $5,000 stipend to oversee the department part time while maintaining his full-time duties as maintenance director. Employees of the department said that they rarely saw Thomas and that Woolridge and Cox were the ones running the daily operations.

After speaking against Powers on June 14, Woolridge was given a letter of direction from Powers ordering that she receive counseling from a Tucson firm that offers workplace behavioral services. Woolridge said she was only trying to convey to the board that "things haven't gone smoothly" in the transportation department this year.

"Evidently, if I don't abide by this, I'm going to put 21 years down the tube," said Woolridge, who started as a bus driver in the district in 1984 and worked her way up the chain.

Last year, Woolridge said district officials gave her the option of being fired from her supervisor position or taking a position as a secretary when Powers was brought on. Cox, who had been a field supervisor, became a "trainer supervisor" when Powers was hired, though his duties hardly changed while costing the district more than $7,000 in extra overtime pay, Powers' proposal claims.

According to Powers' proposal, the operations manager would be responsible for supervising three dispatchers and a payroll clerk while serving as a technician to manage routes and field trip assignments. The proposed shop foreman would assume duties of the parts specialist position Powers has proposed eliminating.

Powers' presentation claims the reorganization will "not only upgrade our professional capabilities but will accommodate the anticipated growth over the foreseeable future."

However, bus drivers say eliminating a route driver and reducing the fleet from 104 to 103 buses is a poor decision, especially considering that the district is growing by leaps and bounds. Some say they're already doubling and tripling their routes because the department is shorthanded.

"As it is, we don't have enough drivers to go around. We can't afford to cut a position," Taylore said. "It's not fair to the kids and it's not fair to the parents. We need to find a way to find more drivers."

Powers cited absenteeism and resignations as reasons drivers are doubling or tripling routes. He said one route can be eliminated this year because of student counts that allow two existing routes to be consolidated.

Elaine Blackledge, a Marana bus driver for the past 20 years, said Powers seems to think he doesn't have to "go by the handbook" when making changes to the department.

"We have a lot of unhappy campers down here, me included," she said. "Things really need to be looked at before any reorganization is to be approved. Our district is so large - it's over 500 square miles - that you just can't do all these changes at once. It's just not going to work out."

MUSD is one of the largest school districts in the state, encompassing about 550 miles and employing more than 120 bus drivers whose routes take them more than 12,000 miles a day.

"Sometimes, saving a buck isn't the best way to go when you're running a transportation department this large," Blackledge said. "I can understand where they might be needing some changes in some areas that are on a positive note, but they're all in his (Powers') favor and to save money for the district - and not necessarily keeping employees happy."

Blackledge, who spent the past 20 years working her way up to a wage of about $15 per hour during the regular school year, is currently one of more than 50 bus drivers making $8.36 per hour this summer. Meanwhile, another 21 are making $6.25 per hour to wash buses, service upholstery and serve as bus attendants.

"We have no benefits during the summer at all," she said. "And even though I'm a 20-year person, when I'm hired back for summer work, I cannot use my accumulated sick time. It's not allowed.

"I keep on keeping on because I want to keep my retirement," she said.

Taylore is one of a handful of bus drivers who make about $14,000 per year, and she thinks it's unfair that an operations manager could make more than twice her salary.

"We can't afford air conditioning on our buses, but we can afford to have somebody come in and run a computer for $34,000?" she said, arguing that Powers is capable of performing the duties listed under the proposed job description.

With modest pay bumps going into effect, Powers said the district's new starting wage will be $9.68 per hour, which is less than what Tucson Unified and Amphitheater Public Schools offer. Some drivers said they've been subject to threats for years that the district could contract with a private company and rehire them at lower wages.

Another frequent complaint among bus drivers in Marana is that they have to drive on substandard dirt roads while they're responsible for damage to their buses.

"They send us through these roads that are not county maintained and it's difficult - they're these wildcat trails out in the desert," said Taylore, whose routes take her close to 400 miles each week.

Margaret Stough, a Marana bus driver for the past 23 years, including 15 years in the district's driver training program, said change is inevitable under a new director, but it's the way the process has been handled that has upset most people.

"If it's done and you don't know anything about it until the next day when you come back to work and everything's changed, then you feel a little more resistant," she said.

Like many of her colleagues, Stough has graduated from Marana schools, lives in Marana, pays taxes in Marana, and has children living in Marana. For those reasons, the decisions being made are something she wants a say in.

"It's a little more personal to us than somebody who doesn't live in the district," she said. "I think that's where you get a little bit more resistance."

Some bus drivers are complaining that the district once trained its drivers three to four weeks before putting them on the road but now they're on the road almost immediately. They say that practice has scared away drivers, but Powers estimated the department's turnover rate is about 10 or 11 percent.

Other drivers complain that new special needs buses coming into the fleet will be a different style than they're used to and some say they're uncomfortable switching to buses they've never driven before. Powers argued that the 24 new buses are more durable and offer better ground clearance.

Not every bus driver in Marana has a gripe, though.

Bill Hindle, who recently completed his first year on the job, said he doesn't think he'll be affected by any changes. Probably "the lowest man on the totem pole," he admitted he wasn't even aware of Powers' proposal.

"I think it's kind of a union thing where people who are really serious heavy-duty into the union are gnashing their teeth," he said. "But in general, the rank-and-file worker is fine with things. We'd like to make more money, but I guess we'll have to wait."

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