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Parents Feel Brunt of Bus Dispute

Times Staff Writer

The mother of the 17-year-old handicapped boy in the wheelchair was angry.

“These children have been without bus service for more than a week,” said Roslyn Howard of Fullerton. “The whole situation is chaotic. This is causing hardships for many parents.”

Tuesday afternoon, Howard was picking up her son Michael at George Key Special Center in Placentia. It is a chore she has been saddled with nearly every school day since Sept. 12, the day the buses stopped running.

Howard is one of hundreds of parents caught in a dispute between the Orange County Department of Education--which is responsible for educating about 800 handicapped children--and Durham Transportation Inc. of Rosemead--the bus company under contract to transport the students to 21 special-education schools in the county.

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The bus company--in the fourth year of a five-year contract--has been dispatching only about half the necessary buses since that Monday. The company owner said he needs more money from the county because rising expenses have eaten into his profit margin and he can’t afford to pay the money necessary to find qualified drivers.

The county says the bus company is under contract and must continue to bus all the students.

Today is the deadline that both the county and a state agency charged with watching over federal programs for the handicapped have given the bus company to resolve the driver shortage.

As Howard was picking up her son on Tuesday, county officials and two elected Board of Education trustees were meeting with bus officials, trying to work out a solution.

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“We’ve got to try to settle this situation,” said trustee Elizabeth Parker shortly before the closed session.

But after a three-hour meeting, Fred Koch, assistant superintendent of the county Department of Education, reported that there had been no resolution and that the two sides would meet again today.

But Parker emerged discouraged. “The prospects don’t look good for a long-term solution,” she said.

Howard said of the dilemma: “We parents of developmentally disabled children can handle most situations. But what gets us down is having to battle the agencies that are supposed to help us.”

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The controversy has caused an unusual show of friction between the county school board and the county Department of Education.

Parker and trustee Sheila Meyers have sharply criticized Supt. Robert Peterson’s handling of the bus contract. Peterson, an elected official, heads the county department but gets the $50-mil

lion-a-year budget for the 800-employee department only if the elected county board members agree. Normally relations between Peterson and the board are cordial.

But last week, Parker and Meyers both blasted Peterson for allegedly not informing the board that trouble was brewing with the bus contractor, Durham Transportation.

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“I kept asking him (Peterson) about the status of the bus contract, and I was always told everything was hunky-dory,” Parker said. She and Meyers contend that Peterson and his staff knew as far back as December that Larry Durham, owner of the company, was having problems with the five-year contract.

Peterson, in rebuttal, has said he was surprised on Sept. 12 when buses did not show up for lack of drivers.

The dispute revolves around a five-year bus contract, which expires next year, between the county department and Durham Transportation. Durham contends that unusual expenses--including a tripling of insurance costs--have made it hard for him to attract qualified bus drivers.

“The contract depends on good faith and they (the Orange County Department of Education) have not dealt with me in good faith on this,” Durham said . “The contract says I can get a cost-of-living increase if I show documentation, and I did this the past two years, and I got less than the consumer-price-index percentage. The CPI two years ago was 3.5%, and I only got a 1% increase, and last year, the CPI was 4.9%, and I only got 2 1/2%. So I’ve been losing money for two years in a row.”

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Durham conceded that the county department this year gave him the full 4.34% CPI cost-of-living increase for the busing contract. But, he said it is not enough to make the contract profitable enough to hire more drivers.

Peterson said his problem centers on the fact that the state has failed for three years in a row to give county departments of education any cost-of-living increase. To give Durham any increase, Peterson said, has meant dipping into the county department’s general fund--"money that otherwise would be used in the classrooms.”

While Durham, Peterson and elected county Board of Education members argued about the bus shortage, Rhys Burchill, executive director of Developmental Disabilities Board, Area XI, said that watchdog agency plans to seek federal intervention in the dispute. Burchill said the board, which is a state-created agency for overseeing programs for the handicapped, will file a civil rights complaint today if the bus shortage has not ended.

Burchill said the civil rights of the handicapped students are being violated because federal laws requiring the transportation of such children to their respective schools is not being carried out.

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“These children have civil rights,” said Howard, the mother who was picking up her physically and mentally disabled son Tuesday. “The public law requires that transportation be provided them. Their civil rights are being denied.”

Howard, a free-lance writer and a single parent, said she is luckier than most parents of handicapped students in that she works at home. She can drop her work and pick up her son somewhat more easily than parents who are in businesses and factories, where getting off in the middle of the day to pick up a child poses a major problem.

“This produces more stress for the parents,” she said. “It adds to the stress that they already have.”


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