BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The second public portion of the Bridgewater-Raritan board of education meeting May 28 largely turned into a plea to save the district’s current crop of school bus drivers.
 
A resolution originally on the agenda would have approved the hire of a number of private bus companies (in addition to a few that are already used) to do bus routes throughout the district, as opposed to using many district-hired bus drivers.

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Local parent Donna Kelly asked the board why the district would want to replace its current bus drivers, who are presumably under the auspices of the Bridgewater-Raritan Transportation Association, with all that is going on regarding the route changes during the Washington Valley Road construction, and called it “unacceptable.”

“I’m really concerned about it,” she said.



She added that the current bus drivers are “phenomenal,” and that there will be some kind of aftermath if parents are not involved. School board president Jill Gladstone replied that details of the negotiations are confidential, but that she hopes something will get done soon.

Gladstone said the board was tabling a resolution that would have approved transportation contracts for the 2019-2020 school year. She said the district has been seeking ways of reducing spending, and that those on the other side of the bus negotiations felt there was a need for more talk on the matter.

 

The board unanimously tabled the resolution by an 8-0 vote.

Parent Surena Artutis said she was upset she hadn’t known about the bus driver situation, and would have liked to have known more about it. Gladstone reiterated that, by law, negotiations between the board and any unions are confidential, although residents can express their feelings at public board meetings, or by e-mailing members of the board via the district website.
 
Parents do not have an actual vote on the matter, but Gladstone added that the board is interested in public feedback, and she asked them to please let the process play out.

“I feel helpless and upset,” responded Artutis. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

Another parent said that everyone should have been better advised of the situation, while Chris James, vice-president of the Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association, thanked the board for postponing its vote and said he hopes the matter will be worked out.
 
Samantha Tai, who spoke through tears, said her pre-school daughter has had at least eight different bus drivers in the mornings so far this year, which she called “a joke,” and added that the morning buses are either always late, or stink of exhaust emissions. She said her daughter’s afternoon bus driver, who is from Bridgewater, is always on time, but that the situation is still stressful to parents, who want to know the people who shuttle their children to and from school every day.

No less than a dozen bus drivers from the district spoke publicly during the board meeting. 

Driver Monica Munoz said that 17 out of 24 bus drivers are willing to negotiate with the school board on insurance, after speaking with the union’s field representative, to “overcome the impasse.”

Driver Ron Schmidt, believed to be the president of the bus drivers’ union, thanked the board for tabling the resolution to better come to a conclusion on the situation. Another bus driver, with nearly 20 years of service, said that the district drivers are “like family,” and that they not only know the children they serve, but have also been a part of their graduations, concerts, parties and other events.

“We’re part of the community,” she said. “If you contract (our jobs) out, you lose quality care.”

School bus driver Traci Miller said the students she drive love her, and that she loves them in turn.

“I’ve dedicated my entire life to busing,” she said. “I’m there all the time.”

Miller said it is breaking her heart to hear that the district might want to replace its current drivers, and she also asked how she is supposed to take care of her own family if she loses her bus driving job. She said that many, many people would be affected if there was a change in bus service, that the school board needs to re-think what is going on and that the safety of their passengers is the number one priority of the school bus drivers.

Another driver said that a bus that parked next to hers at the high school was from the Barker bus company, one of the several different vendors being considered in the board resolution along with others like Kensington. She said that the driver of the Barker bus has left his keys in his bus, or even left its engine running, while he takes a restroom break “every day,” and that students manage to gain access to the bus in those times, with some of them even sitting in the driver’s seat.
 
Driver Jerry Stackhouse said he is a dedicated driver himself who is always on time. He related that the prior week, he saw several students hanging out of a Barker bus while trying to physically touch another bus — and that the Barker bus driver did nothing to stop them.

“I just want to leave that with you,” he said.

Another bus driver said that with any other bus contractor, the district wouldn’t know who it was getting behind the wheel. It wouldn’t necessarily know if those drivers had been fingerprinted, or drug-tested, or if they even had safe driving records.

“We’re all legitimate,” he said of the current bus drivers. “We’re legal and ready to drive the kids to school.”

School bus driver Maria Reed called short-term privatization of the district’s bus services a “short-term, band-aid solution,” and said the board would be taking a large risk in replacing its current drivers, in terms of accountability, lowered service and hidden costs, especially with “lowball” bid offers. She spoke of how both Piscataway and Green Brook let their school bus drivers go, only to hire them back later on in a costly process.

“You’d have to start all over again,” she warned the board.”I would never want to trade my Hamilton (Primary School) kids for anything in the world.”

Another driver, Deb Loris, said she previously worked for the Barker bus company. She said she felt like she was part of a family upon joining the current drivers, and hoped the board would consider that in negotiations.

Maria Sandborg, who has taught in the district for over 15 years, said she attended the board meeting to support the bus drivers.

“I don’t want just anyone to drive my kids,” she said. “I appreciate you thinking about this.”

She also said the negotiations were still stressful, and she asked the board to please listen to the people.

No decision has been made on the direction to go at this time.