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District needs to enforce school bus agreement

If your children have had reliable and timely school bus service this year, consider yourself fortunate.

Regrettably, Lake Oswego school buses are often late or miss stops, students are picked up by drivers on other routes or the bus does not show up at all.

This is happening because First Student, the contractor operating the system for the Lake Oswego School District, has a severe shortage of qualified drivers who are familiar with Lake Oswego. In fact, on any given day, 20-25 percent of drivers are being brought in from outside the area — and even from as far away as Alaska — to drive temporarily.

This situation has worsened over the last few years. Increasingly, drivers are not returning after the summer or leaving during the school year to find better pay and benefits. Over the past year, driver turnover was 40 percent, imposing pressure on remaining drivers who are being asked to “fill in.”

Reassignments arrive on short notice, often with a replacement driver unfamiliar with the route. Of course, our greatest concern is not uncertainty and inconvenience, but the safety of our passengers.

Entry-level pay for a fully qualified Lake Oswego school bus driver is currently $11.80 per hour, the same pay level that has existed for at least the past five years; in Beaverton, comparable entry-level pay is $14.78 with better benefits. No doubt, most local First Student managers would love to see a more competitive pay schedule. After all, it is these managers who are challenged daily with the frenetic scramble to piece together reliable and safe transportation service in spite of inadequate resources.

The First Student strategy is incomprehensible: a 40 percent turnover rate results in wasteful expense to recruit and train local candidates or relocate, house and train new out-of-area temporary drivers.

We have no issue with First Student making a reasonable profit. However, Lake Oswego school bus drivers find it unacceptable when misguided strategies to increase profit margins result in unreliable service and greater risk transporting our passengers.

While the Teamsters Local #206 represents Lake Oswego drivers, they are making near-zero progress with First Student’s ability to recruit and retain qualified, reliable drivers. For example, after two months of meetings, First Student has agreed to raise entry level pay 30 cents.

If things are going to change for the better, the Lake Oswego School District will need to improve and enforce its agreement with First Student.

William Beckwith is a primary route driver for Lake Oswego. He submitted this Citizen’s View on behalf of several current Lake Oswego school bus drivers.

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