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School Bus Drivers Wheel and Deal for Best Routes

Times Staff Writer

School bus driver Isiah Simon plotted his strategy carefully. At stake was the route he would drive when classes resume in a few weeks.

He would pick a route close to home so he could spend more time with his family. And he would ask for older kids; older kids are calmer. And he would avoid routes through gang turf.

His first choice: Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles. Those kids don’t cause trouble as long as he keeps the radio tuned to hip hop.

Such are the calculations hundreds of Los Angeles bus drivers make each year as they endure a ritual known as the “school bus bid,” a three-day event filled with cheers, grumbles and sighs of relief -- not to mention tension.

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“Hopefully, nobody will take what I want,” said Simon before the bidding began on a recent Friday inside a dull beige auditorium at Wilson High School in northeast Los Angeles.

If someone grabbed Hamilton High, Simon decided, he would bid on University High School near Brentwood. That shift would end in time for Simon, 35, a single father, to pick up his two sons from school and cook dinner.

The long-standing tradition of the bid works like this: In order of seniority, drivers receive two minutes to state their preference. The first driver to claim a route gets it.

Sounds simple, but to a newcomer, the process is bewildering.

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“Page 17, Route 2208, No. 2279!” shouted a driver when asked his top choice.

“Page 2, Route 1171!”

Simon’s hopes rested with Page 45, Route 3662. The “page” referred to the thick booklets listing more than 1,000 routes in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As lucky drivers claimed choice routes, others shuffled through their booklets, marking off routes with pencils and red pens.

Drivers strategize over how to land a safe route with good kids, a nice supervisor and opportunities to earn overtime. Savvy veterans who already have good routes strategize on how to protect them. One technique: Don’t brag. Others might want your route.

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At times, this year’s bidding sessions had the spirit and camaraderie of a lively church service at a tight-knit congregation. In between shouts -- “Page 2, Route 6082!” -- colleagues stopped to hug old friends, welcome newcomers or compare the cushiness of bus seats.

Several hundred drivers attended each session, many wearing light blue collared shirts and name badges. As they called out their picks, some added the bus number to page and route. “Page 8, Route 1510, 6152,” said a driver.

“I can’t hear you!” someone shouted.

Everyone paused, waiting for the announcer to ask him to repeat his bid.

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“You messed it up already, man!” one colleague yelled to the bidder, jokingly.

No one was laughing later when a driver tried to make his bid without completing a key bit of paperwork. He failed to submit documents listing his old route.

He then tried to bid on a longer route that would offer more opportunities for overtime. That’s when the arguing began.

Even the district boss got involved, keeping his voice low and steady, as drivers sided with the bidder. One shouted: “Call your lawyer!”

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A union representative threatened to file a grievance.

“Everyone is always trying to push the envelope” to get the best deal, said Antonio Rodriguez, director of transportation for the district.

It took 20 minutes to sort it all out.

L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, buses nearly 10% of its students. Many are severely handicapped special education students. Others are bused under desegregation programs to magnet schools. Some are shuttled from overcrowded campuses to ones with more space. District employees handle about half of the students; contract companies take the rest.

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The bidding system ranks drivers according to their number of years with the district. Some were driving before the parents of today’s kindergartners were born. About 900 senior and mid-level employees receive first choice in bidding sessions.

That leaves about 214 less-experienced drivers, like Simon, to pick from whatever is left.

Simon, whose passion is producing Spanish rap music, started with the district in 1991, working his way up to $24.50 an hour. He plans to keep driving until he can find a distributor for his start-up label, Rochelle Records.

“I ain’t rich,” said Simon. “But I’m comfortable, and I’ve got full benefits for my family.”

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At this year’s bid, Simon took a seat in the back row of the auditorium with his two sons. Family members are not allowed in bidding sessions, but Simon sneaked them in.

Unlike some drivers who wore uniforms bearing emblems that read “LA’s Future Rides With Us,” Simon wore a White Sox baseball cap and an Ecko Unlimited shirt.

Simon said he had driven challenging routes before, like those around Jordan and Locke high schools. On those routes, he was careful to avoid groups of teenagers who might be gang members. He took alternate streets and dropped students off at safe stops.

Drivers often look for safe routes. They also seek newer buses with air conditioning and automatic transmissions. Others prefer routes near the beach, where it’s cooler.

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Many prefer magnet students who some say are better behaved than rowdy middle-schoolers who often eat, fight and stick their hands out of windows.

Drivers also try to stay away from routes overseen by bad supervisors. Some drivers identify unpopular supervisors by finding out how often their drivers miss work. A high number of substitutes might indicate a mean boss is in charge.

During Simon’s session, the names of 17 drivers appeared before his on an overhead projector.

He studied a supplement to his booklet, a pink sheet that read: “2005-2006 Fall Bid.” Black printed circles indicated routes that drivers had claimed in previous sessions.

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“What’s this for?” asked his 9-year-old son, Joshua, leaning his head against his father’s shoulder.

“This is how we pick our buses,” Simon replied.

Simon looked up at the screen and was taken aback.

Confused, he rushed up to a supervisor and then returned to his seat, quickly flipping through the booklet. His boys looked at him with worried faces.

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Instead of 17 names before his, there were now 130.

“Now, for sure I know I’m not going to get my route,” he said, frantically circling alternative routes.

Another driver, Tony Harris, who has worked for the district since 1979, could sympathize.

This year, Harris was seeking a specific route because his mother is suffering from cancer. An only child, Harris wanted to work close to the Harbor area, where she lives. He spent two days waiting for his turn to bid.

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He grinned and quickly strolled out after receiving the route he wanted: “Now I can go take care of Momma.”

Simon looked at his booklet. “Nobody likes this area,” he said, pointing to one route. “The kids are bad, and there’s not enough work.”

The bidding continued and, eventually, 17 names once more separated Simon from making his pick.

“Good,” Simon said, sighing in relief.

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One by one, drivers shouted more routes.

“Page 54, Route 4239.”

Simon double-checked his list.

“Page 80, 7308.”

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“I’m not worried about those,” Simon said. “They’re mostly in the Valley.”

Then, finally, the announcer called: “No. 317, Isiah Simon.”

Simon walked to the middle of the crowd: “Page 45, Route 3662!”

The announcer marked off the route on the screen.

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Simon got up to leave with his sons. He had gotten Hamilton High School, his first choice.


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