Re-1 school district facing bus driver dilemma

The shortage of bus drivers in the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 could shrink even more if bus drivers are forced to pay for their health benefits starting next school year.

By going to a five-day school week next school year and switching to single bus routes instead of dual bus routes, drivers would see their weekly hours drop to less than 30 hours a week and could therefore lose their insurance benefits that are currently paid by the Re-1.

“Currently we are in a crisis,” said Michael Canzona, chief of operations for the district at the May 1 board meeting. “Cutting insurance is problematic.”

However, he later said there are concerns facing the single bus route proposal and it may never happen. In a single bus route, a bus would pick up both elementary and high school students at the same time on the same bus. Currently, the two groups of students are picked up at different times.

Canzona also said there would be times when one bus could not handle all the students in one route, which would mean the Re-1 would need to hire additional bus drivers.

Route coordinator director Lena Galloway said there are currently 19 bus routes with 21 drivers and if more than two drivers are unable to work, she or her dispatcher must drive a route.

When she and her dispatcher have to drive a bus route, which is not that unusual, her mechanics must answer the phones.

“You have to be in contact with the public,” Canzona said.

Interim Superintendent Mary Rubadeau said she feels it is pretty common for part-time employees to not get all of their benefits paid by their employer and mentioned the bus drivers could end up paying a good percentage of the insurance premiums if they wanted to keep them.

Canzona said currently bus driver applicants for the Re-1 must undergo six weeks of training before they are allowed behind the wheel to transport students.

He also said many of the district’s bus drivers are older and are looking for supplemental insurance and taking this away could result in them looking for work elsewhere.

He said the question of whether bus drivers continue to have the district pick up their insurance costs may have to be revisited by the new superintendent if the budget that is created takes benefits away from drivers.

Galloway said the wages for driving a bus are very competitive on an hourly basis but the job is definitely a part-time job at four to five hours a day. She added it is meant for someone who does not want to work full-time.

The starting pay for an Re-1 bus driver is $12.17 an hour, and that pay increases to $13.07 after four years of experience and tops out at $16.67 after 16 years.

She mentioned there is one driver who is retiring at the end of this year who has worked for the Re-1 for 40 years.

Canzona said they often look at residents who have spare time, have their own business or are retired and are looking to make some extra money.

Canzona said finding replacement bus drivers who may decide to seek other jobs if their health benefits are cut will not be easy.

For every six applicants who want to be a bus driver, one might pan out, he said.

Galloway said she observes the applicant’s ability to drive a bus before the actual training takes place and decides at that time whether it would be a waste of time to train someone who is not right for the job.

Michael Maresh can be reached at michaelm@cortezjournal.com