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Ind. Provision Seen Jeopardizing Bus Drivers' Jobs

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A provision of the Indiana budget passed late last year threatens to put local school-bus drivers out of work, according to state lawmakers who are trying to get it repealed.

The measure, which requires school districts to gather at least two bids for transportation services each year, was approved in an effort to stem rising property taxes by cutting skyrocketing transportation costs.

Supporters of the provision, sponsored by Sen. Morris H. Mills, an Indianapolis Republican, said it would help hold down costs by promoting competition.

The requirement has provoked protests from bus drivers and school officials, however, and legislators--many of whom now say they did not realize the implications of the change before last year's vote--seem ready to respond.

A bill repealing the provision passed the House on a unanimous vote. The bill has also cleared the Senate education committee, but has not yet been slated on the full Senate calendar.

Tracy Dust, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said last week that prospects looked good for repeal.

"There's a lot of concern across the state about this,'' Mr. Dust said.

Losing the "Little Guy'

Critics of the law say it will hurt the state's independent drivers, who tend to be part-time workers, farmers, or housewives. Under a system of one-year contracts, independent drivers may have a hard time getting financing for the purchase of buses from banks, which want the income stability provided by a long-term contract.

Opponents also say the provision could actually result in increased costs.

If the smaller contractors are put out of business by the one-year rule, Mr. Dust said, there will be no competition for "fleet bidders,'' larger contractors who frequently come from out of state.

"Once the little guy is gone,'' he said, "there's no competition for the next round of bidding.''

The next year, there would be nothing to stop the fleet bidders from hiking up their bids, Mr. Dust said.

The legislation has bred resentment at the district level as well.

Charles Johnson, the manager of bus transportation for the Evansville schools, said the legislation could undermine the district's transportation system.

Mr. Johnson also noted the provision's threat to local drivers.

The Evansville district employs 156 drivers who drive district buses, 46 special-education drivers, and 56 contract drivers, who use non-district buses.

"If this [legislation] would go into effect,'' Mr. Johnson said, "all of these people would be out of business.''

Although bigger contractors could hire the drivers back again, they might do so at substantially lower salaries.

The district now pays drivers approximately $10 to $12 per hour, according to Mr. Johnson. But fleet contractors typically pay about $7 or $8 per hour, and often without the paid leave that the district offers.

Budget Padding Alleged

Fleet bidders, on the other hand, allege that districts have misused transportation funds, which are paid by the state with no cap, by including in their transportation budgets such employees as transportation directors and on- and off-bus supervisors.

By not including those costs, the fleet bidders say, they can provide transportation services much more cheaply.

But district transportation administrators consider those costs integral to the service they provide.

Mr. Johnson also expressed concern that the larger contractors would not provide the special-education services, such as on-bus aides, that the district currently provides.

"You get what you pay for,'' Mr. Johnson said. "Let's be realistic about that.''

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