A missed opportunity: How the school board overlooked an essential community concern
September 28, 2023 | View PDF
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the McKenzie Valley School District.
The recent McKenzie School District board meeting illuminated a pressing issue: the critical need for qualified school bus drivers. Amidst the voices of concerned parents and experienced drivers, the board’s response highlighted a glaring gap in their approach. It’s essential to recognize that school board meetings are the proper place to address urgent matters like this one, impacting both our children’s education and the cohesion of our community.
Greg Garrelts set the tone, warning that a lack of adequate driver recruitment and retention could severely impact students’ education and extracurricular activities. He was not alone; Mark Dean expanded on the financial angle, contrasting our district’s low compensation with other, more proactive districts. He took the issue one step further, questioning the wisdom and community impact of resorting to hiring chartered buses from outside the area. These out-of-district drivers may be qualified, but they lack crucial local knowledge—of both the roads and the community they serve. They drive vehicles not equipped with our district radios, restricting vital communication lines with the school.
Current and former school bus drivers, like John Phelps and Justin Barker, pointed to the relational aspect of their job. These drivers connect with students in a unique way, creating a community-centric circle of trust. The Board’s reluctance to address this issue adequately undermines not just these relationships but also our children’s sense of belonging and safety.
The arguments went even deeper, covering exhausting schedules that contribute to driver burnout and adverse effects on the broader community. For instance, low compensation for school bus drivers can result in higher turnover rates, forcing families to adjust to new drivers frequently, and weakening the bonds of trust and familiarity. Additionally, reliance on chartered buses from outlying districts imposes an economic drain, as these services often come at a premium, pulling resources from other educational needs.
Yet, in response to these compelling voices, Board Chair Elaine Bryson and members Alyssa Brownlee and Jason Wickizer effectively punted the issue down the road. While Bryson asked for a wage comparison among school districts, she missed an opportunity to ask for a cost analysis between using chartered buses from outlying districts and employing internal drivers—a key element in understanding the full scope of the issue.
The board must recognize that issues like this are not merely “union matters” to be deferred for later discussion. They are urgent community concerns that should be debated openly and directly during board meetings. As the guiding body tasked with steering the next generation toward understanding themselves, their community, and the world, the board needs to acknowledge the real stakes at play and provide actionable solutions that honor the community’s needs and concerns.
Ken Rawles is the Technology Coordinator for the McKenzie School District and an active member of the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA).