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The Salt Lake City School District is contemplating privatizing its transportation department, over its bus drivers' objections.

If the proposal goes through, Salt Lake will be the fourth school district in Utah, after San Juan, Logan and Ogden, to privatize its busing service. (The Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind also use a private company.)Fifty-five drivers, transporting 6,000 students, would be affected.

The bus drivers, most of whom are members of the Utah School Employees Association, argue that privatizing busing would not only hurt drivers since a private company would very likely lower the wages and benefits but also hurt students since they would wind up with less-experienced drivers.

"It's a bad idea," said Ora Lee Elliott, a bus driver and member of an oversight committee studying the proposal.

A private company would likely slash the drivers' wages, currently $10 to $13 per hour, by as much as 50 percent to save costs.

The Cache County School District, located cheek to jowl with privatized-busing Logan School District, looked into privatization itself but decided against it for quality reasons.

"They (the private companies) couldn't guarantee the same level of service, and that's what we were concerned about," said Superintendent Larry Jensen. "Yes, there would be a significant savings, but they realize those savings by severely reducing the pay of the drivers," thereby decreasing the quality of hires.

"There's a certain wisdom to keeping faith with people who have dedicated their lives to this job," Jensen added. "It is a cost saver, but we were concerned about the human issue at that level."

The Salt Lake District has struggled for several years with how to decrease its transportation costs, including at one point trying to negotiate with the Utah Transit Authority for discounted student passes for city buses, much like those used by University of Utah students. The busing issue received added attention in 1988, when attendance boundaries were reshuffled and bus demand significantly increased, such as for west-side students newly attending East High School.

The effort culminated in the spring of 1994, when the district solicited privatization proposals. Three companies responded, two of which would have saved the district's $1.7 million transportation budget about $500,000, according to district business manager Gary Harmer. In addition, there would be a one-time influx of $1.1 million from the purchase of the buses.

Under pressure from the union, however, and in order to have all its ducks in a row before taking a shot, the board decided not to go ahead with privatization. Instead, it opted to appoint a committee to study the issue of privatizing not only transportation but other areas such as food service, custodians, building maintenance, data processing and secretarial services.

"We recommend that privatization be a constant consideration for the district," the committee's report stated.

The school board is now examining a proposed bid request for busing privatization. The bids will likely be sent out and responses received within a few months, Superintendent Darline Robles said.

Transportation director Don Preece, for one, is ready for a decision one way or the other.

"This has been hanging over the head of our employees for two years and it needs to be resolved," he said. "Who knows - if it goes through I guess I could be kicking a can down the road somewhere."

There may be a way for the district to eat its cake and have it too: The drivers could form their own cooperative to buy the busing from the district. A California school district did that with considerable success, Robles said.

"That is something that we've just barely started to kick around," Elliott said. "We're still trying to figure this out."

Some of the drivers are accusing the district of bringing up the privatization issue to retaliate for a gender discrimination suit brought by three female bus drivers in 1992 (the suit is continuing, with the plaintiffs now on their fourth set of attorneys). District officials say the accusation hardly merits comment.

"I, as a supervisor, would never do that," Robles said. "This is simply something we're doing as a way to save taxpayers money."