By Judy Reed
If the Sparta Area Schools Board of Education accepts the proposal, Sparta bus drivers could be working for Cedar Springs Public Schools next year. Or, they could be out of a job. Those possibilities has Sparta bus drivers worried about what the future holds.
Cuts in state aid to schools next year could have devastating effects on area districts, and Sparta Area Schools is one such district struggling with how to balance their budget for next year.
According to Sparta Superintendent Kent Swinson, based on current funding bills their deficit for next year could be between $3.3 and $4.5 million. This year’s budget for March already showed a deficit of $1.3 to $1.6 million and without any reductions, their entire fund balance would be wiped out next year.
One area they are looking at to see if they can save any money is on bus driving services. They recently sent out a request for proposals and received three to review: one from the Sparta bus drivers union, one from Cedar Springs Public Schools, and one from Michigan Education Transportation Services (METS). The board considered the proposals at the board meeting Monday evening, but did not yet act on them. About 50 people picketed outside before the meeting to show their disapproval of bidding out driver services.
Swinton noted that while a lot of people keep talking about the possibility of districts consolidating services, they’ve already been doing it here in northern Kent County. “This current year we have already been sharing a transportation director and bus mechanical services with Cedar Springs,” he said, noting that they made that decision last year after their transportation supervisor retired. “We thought we might go one step further and see if there would be additional cost savings and efficiency in sharing routes,” he explained.
Cedar Springs Assistant Superintendent David Cairy confirmed they had bid on the driver services. “We wanted to let them know that we could work together, and that we were up to the challenge of supporting a neighboring district,” he explained. He said they would in no way jeopardize services to Cedar Springs. “It would have to be a win-win for all of us.”
He said they had also talked to Cedar’s bus drivers union to make sure they were comfortable with the proposed plan. “Our drivers are a good group,” said Cairy. “They’ve been very supportive.”
Under Cedar’s proposal, all Sparta buses would be housed at Cedar Springs and dispatched from there, and they would invoice Sparta for the driving services.
Sparta bus driver Melode LaHuis said that while sharing a supervisor is not ideal because he’s not on site to immediately answer questions, it has still gone fairly well this year, and she believes any glitches can be worked out. But the thought of Sparta drivers losing seniority, their option for medical benefits and the possibility of Cedar drivers taking over their routes is what has LaHuis concerned. “Once they do it, it can’t be undone. We are the heart and soul of the school district. We take care of the kids and head off problems before they get to the classroom,” she said.
LaHuis said that she is a single mother, and gets 6 hours of driving time per day. “If I was hired in new at Cedar Springs, I’d have to start at the bottom again as a substitute, with no medical. I can’t afford to do that,” she said. “Transportation only represents 3 percent of the budget. It’s all about the money. It needs to come from the top down,” she said, noting that administrators in other districts are taking pay cuts or freezes.
Swinton said that they are trying to save every penny they possibly can. “We are trying to do the best we can with the limited resources we have, and put those in the classroom as much as possible. If the choice comes down to having larger class sizes or cutting transportation, we’ll cut transportation. Educating our students is our primary goal,” he explained.
Swinton said that he would bring a recommendation to the board on the proposals by the end of the month. “We need to understand exactly what’s included and see how it fits with our district,” he said.