Opinion: School Board vs Bus Drivers – It’s Not Really About the Cameras

by Michael Boyink / [email protected]

Magicians use sleight of hand to direct your attention away from what they don’t want you to see.

Every sport seems to have “trick plays” that try to catch opponents off guard, setting them up to expect one thing but then delivering another.

Our own Ava Bears did this – setting up for a punt in the semifinal game against Clark County, then running the ball instead.

My opinion is that the Ava R-1 School Board is trying a trick play of its own.

The current focus and fuss is about putting cameras on school buses. In the name of student safety. 

Which isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. I’ve heard stories from our local bus drivers about other cars blowing past a stopped bus with lights flashing and arm out.

But the cameras aren’t being mandated by the State of Missouri. Or the Federal Government. The money for the cameras didn’t come from any school-safety related grant money. 

It seems a bit odd for the board to now claim, as it did in the recent letter sent to bus drivers, that “transporting a large number of students on a school bus with one adult to monitor safety is inherently an unsafe condition.”

Is the board admitting to decades of transporting children in an unsafe fashion? Bus camera technology isn’t new. If the safety situation is so dire, why weren’t cameras installed years ago?

So no, it’s not (just) about the cameras.

It’s about the bigger picture of student transportation.

There are five board members that want to change how Ava Schools transports students. 

Some of  them, apparently, want it bad enough to lie.

Kenny Fleetwood campaigned for his board seat in March of 2017, saying “Our bus drivers are experienced, dedicated, and the best around. The past controversy of the transportation system has been settled, it is over. It is time to move on and focus on other important issues and how we can come together to improve our district.”

Yet Fleetwood has, with a rare exception or two – voted against any motion that favors the current transportation system.

Campaigning for his seat in March of 2017, Michael Stewart said “If elected, one of my goals is to bring unity to our schools. For two years, the student transportation issue has cause division within our community. Thankfully, an agreement has been reached and the issue is settled. I wish to move forward from this dispute and focus on a topic that I believe is more important – our student’s education.”

During his time on the board, Stewart has consistently voted against any motion favoring the current transportation system. His efforts have kept the transportation issue alive and fostered even deeper division in the community.

Mike Henry, in his March 2017 campaign, said “I certainly am not, nor do I think any candidate running for election or reelection has plans to focus on the transportation issue again. The issue is settled, it is over. What matters is our children, their safety, and their education. Let’s focus on that!”

Yet Henry has also consistently voted against any motion favoring the current transportation system, which has kept the issue in focus.

But why?

Good question.

They don’t explicitly say why. 

They hardly talk at all. 

But they aren’t trying to save the school money. Between the recent TransPar report and research done by former board members, the board knows the current multi-contractor approach to transporting students is the cheapest way to transport students. The board has also engaged with lawyers from St. Louis to represent them in this issue against the bus drivers. That law firm wouldn’t give me their rates over the phone, but a 2016 survey found online has them at $200+/hr (the 2019 median rate in St. Louis is $365/hr).

The board isn’t looking to improve service. The buses always pass inspection before being used. There have been no drivers terminated for poor service or performance issues. No new busing company with new drivers will be able to match the long-term relationships the current bus drivers have built with the families on their routes. 

So. If it’s not to save money or improve service, then the board’s motives aren’t logical. 

Which means it’s a matter of greed, grudge, power, or ego. 

Or all of those.

What about the who? Who is behind all of the efforts to change the school transportation?

That’s another puzzle. 

The effort predates the current school administrators and all of the current school board (save for board President Bart Ellison). 

Which seems to indicate a third party, someone experienced in the school environment, well-connected to board members, and able to influence both the structure and voting of the current school board. 

Someone, maybe, with plans to start a single-source busing company for the school to award a contract to? With an annual school transportation budget of $600K – $700K it’s easy to imagine someone wanting in on that action.

For the school board, the cameras are the right issue at the right time. Flying under the banner of “student safety”, the board can justify taking action on a years-long desire to confiscate the bus routes.

The bus drivers have until December 16th to sign an agreement regarding the cameras. Ava Schools Christmas break runs from December 23rd to January 6th. That break would give the schools time to get another busing system in place.

There’s a longer-term time factor at work.

Three school board terms – currently held by anti-bus driver members Fleetwood, Stewart, and Henry – expire in April. 

The board knows an election might swing the majority back in favor of the current transportation system.

The board has the anti-bus driver majority it needs. It has the bus camera issue they can leverage. And  – according to the results of the recent financial audit – it has funding to hire lawyers to force the issue (funding that was seemingly hard to find for bus driver pay increases). 

It’s no surprise they are acting now.

Yes, we need to be concerned for the safety of Ava students. But we should be just as concerned that our schools are being managed by people of integrity and transparency.

And sadly, for the majority of the current school board, that doesn’t seem to be the case.