Schools to Cope With Lack of Bus Drivers

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When school starts next Wednesday in the Berkeley Unified School District, there will be fewer yellow buses on the road, impacting student transport to and from school and after-school programs.

Following a 20 percent cut to school transportation funding in the state budget, the district laid off two bus drivers as part of its effort to balance its budget.

"It's kind of a sad situation: We have the equipment just sitting there but no one to operate it," said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.

As a result of the layoffs, the district had to increase the acceptable distance for a student to walk to school from a mile to a mile and a half: Students living up to a mile and a half from school will have to walk there starting this fall, whereas before they would have been able to use district buses.

The change will impact about 400 students at the elementary school level, according to a school board report. There is no bus service available for the district's middle or high schools.

Coplan said the layoffs also will impact the district's ability to transport elementary students to after-school programs, such as those at city parks.

The school board had originally suggested charging for the service, according to Bernadette Cormier, transportation manager for the district.

But despite the cuts, she said fewer than six students would lose transport to after-school programs this fall.

The district has to deal with transportation issues because of its integration program, which strives to increase diversity in schools by busing students to schools that may not be the closest to their homes.

Coplan said the district is trying to accommodate students within the mile-and-a-half boundary whenever possible, especially if they have to cross busy streets.

A "safety stop" can be created for some of these students, according to Cormier. For example, a student who lives near Malcolm X Elementary School but goes to school at LeConte Elementary School could walk to Malcolm X and be bused to LeConte from there to avoid crossing busy streets on foot.

In May, the state passed a $4.5 million cut to the district's 2008-09 budget, to be followed by a near $5 million cut for the 2009-10 budget.

In addition to the bus driver lay-offs, the district also had to fire two high school counselors and two custodians to balance the budget.

However, Coplan said the district's budget is balanced in large part because of Measure A, which passed in 2006 and provides an additional $20 million in funding to the district every year.

"We've lost millions of dollars and it has been devastating, but thanks to local support, the budget is balanced," he said.

Cormier said parents have expressed concern about a variety of issues, including the fact that their children would potentially be walking across unsafe streets. She said they have also expressed concern about the incompatibility of busing schedules with work and child care schedules, as well as the placement of their children in schools farther away from home.

Cormier said the lack of drivers has decreased the district's flexibility in terms of transportation options.

"Parents think the assignment of a school comes with the promise of busing," she said. "That's not exactly the plan we're offering them. The way we make our decisions is the same as the last year, but the ability to be flexible is diminished by not having those two driver positions."


Amy Brooks is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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