Well over 100 parents, students, teachers and community members filled the gym at Redway School Tuesday, Jan. 3, for a special meeting of the Southern Humboldt Unified School District Board of Trustees to consider sending layoff notices to the district's transportation department.

The meeting was chaired by school board president Dennis O'Sullivan who began by asking the members of the transportation department to stand.

”These are folks you rarely see,” he said. The 11 employees targeted for dismissal rose and received sustained applause from the audience.

”They're an amazing group of people,” O'Sullivan continued, “who go to work in the dark, usually go home in the dark, travel over roads some of us won't travel, driving your children with their backs to them. They do an amazing job and we are here tonight as a group, as a team, to support them and get this funding back for our transportation department.”

That said, O'Sullivan asked Business Manager Celeste Boyd to explain why the board was meeting to issue layoff notices to 11 bus drivers, one transportation mechanic, one shop foreman and the director of the department.

Boyd explained that because state tax revenues had failed to meet the mark on which the state budget was based, certain trigger cuts agreed to in the budget negotiations between the parties in the state Legislature and the governor, $248 million dollars was being cut from the state's home-to-school program. The Southern Humboldt district is losing about $240,000. The district has already dipped into its reserve fund to augment the transportation program by about $227,000. Most of the money the district receives is “restricted” money, meaning that it is given to the district for a specific purpose and can't be diverted to other programs. The money that the district is getting from the sale of bonds from Measure L can't be diverted to transportation either. The district is due to run out of money to operate the school buses by mid-February. At that time, the buses will stop running.

The decision had been made to cancel all afternoon and after school buses to allow all the bus drivers to attend the meeting. Parents were advised ahead of time that they needed to make arrangements to get their kids home from school. The result of that decision, said Redway Principal and Associate Superintendent Julie Johansen, was a sizeable drop in attendance and many parents picking their kids up early. Overall, attendance was down by about 100 students.

The district has been struggling with poor attendance and strategizing ways to increase their Average Daily Attendance income by increasing attendance. The lack of school bus transportation is expected to reduce attendance. Student Trustee Miranda Storre said that she had surveyed the South Fork High School student body and learned that 90% of the students didn't have a way to get to school other than the buses.

Referring to the Measure L money, which is being used to rebuild the high school and refurbish the other schools in the district, a parent asked “What's the point of building new schools if we aren't going to have enough students to fill them?”

Retired Redway School teacher Jackie Carlson urged the trustees to sign on to the Robles-Wong vs. California lawsuit, filed on May 20, 2010. This lawsuit, still working its way through the courts, would require the state to establish a school finance system that provides all students equal opportunity to an education. The district could join that lawsuit as other districts have done by passing a resolution in support of it.

On behalf of the California School Employees Association, Labor Relations Representative Mark R. Ahrens said that districts all over the state are grappling with the transportation issue, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ahrens presented an alternative view of the district's budget. The district's budget of $5,250,627 has $955,799 in its reserve account. This puts their reserve at 18.2% of the budget, much more than the 4% required by the state. Ahrens urged the trustees to dip into their reserve funds to keep the buses running through the school year.

”It's a rainy day fund,” he said. “If it's not raining today in Southern Humboldt, I don't know what rain looks like.”

Boyd countered this argument by saying that the district is already deficit spending and that the large reserve helps them deal with cash flow issues in a difficult economy. She said also that drawing down the reserve will put the district in a precarious position two years from now.

Over 35 members of the audience spoke to the trustees, the overwhelming majority in opposition to firing the bus drivers. At times, the meeting took on aspects of a pep rally, with the trustees being urged to stand strong and, in the words of Supervisorial Candidate Estelle Fennell to “...rise to the occasion and be the little community that could.”

Some placed the blame for the situation on Los Angeles and San Diego and saw it as an attack on rural education. Superintendent Jim Stewart said that he believed it was the result of the Democrats trying to punish the Republicans because most rural areas of the state are heavily Republican.

A parent asked O'Sullivan why the trustees didn't plan for the cut to transportation. O'Sullivan said that they had been assured by those they consult with in Sacramento that the cuts wouldn't happen.

There were complaints that letters had been written to legislators and responses not received, a feeling that no one in Sacramento was listening. Another parent suggested that everyone go to Sacramento to confront the governor and the legislature.

Zooey Goosby, the local representative of State Senator Noreen Evans, was at the meeting and said that their letters and phone calls had been received and that both Senator Evans and Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro were aware of the situation. He promised that Senator Evans would do “all that she can” to help the district.

O'Sullivan told Goosby that he wanted to see action from Evans and indicated that he expected her to get the money restored. Trustee Lehman said he wanted her or Chesbro to sponsor legislation on the district's behalf.

At the request of Trustee Blake Lehman, Goosby agreed to arrange a meeting with Senator Evans.

Trustee Susan Thompson reminded everyone that Evans is only one member of the dozens of members of the legislature representing all areas of the state. She said that she felt they should be contacting more than just the local representatives and joining forces with other rural counties.

Supervisor Clif Clendenen was also at the meeting and had brought along two representatives of the Humboldt Transit Authority. He said that he and the HTA were available to work with the trustees on partnering between the district and the HTA to come up with a way to get the kids to school in the event that the cuts couldn't be rescinded.

When the public discussion was done, the board took up the resolution before them to send layoff notices to the 14 employees that constitute the transportation department. O'Sullivan insisted that even if they passed the resolution they would not fire those listed, that somehow they would find a way around it.

”I promise you,” he said. Some members of the audience suggested that if that were so, why was it necessary to pass the resolution? The reason is that the law requires a 45-day notice prior to a layoff. The idea that you have to issue a notice for something you say will not happen did not set well with some of the parents and they left unhappy with the outcome.

The trustees also passed a resolution directed at Sacramento supporting restoration of home-to-school transportation funds.

The issue of whether or not the buses will run after President's Day will doubtless be revisited when the school board holds its regular monthly meeting this Thursday, Jan. 12. Board meetings are held at Redway School at 4:30 p.m.

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REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY MARY ANDERSON

1. Students from Whitethorn School brought signs they had made to the special school board meeting at Redway School on Jan. 3. Their parents cited safety concerns if more cars are on the mountain roads driving their students to school. They'd rather their children ride with trained bus drivers.

2. The gym at Redway School was packed with parents and community members concerned about the elimination of school buses in the Southern Humboldt Unified School District. A number of parents left dissatisfied with the school board's decision to issue layoff notices to the entire transportation department.