Laura Aune has been driving a bus for the Robbinsdale School District for 12 years, these days transporting students with special needs.
For those students she is part cheerleader, part counselor and part unofficial liaison, reporting daily to teachers whether the kids are having a good day or a bad one.
In just a few months, however, she may find herself unemployed as the school district is considering contracting with a private company to run its 110-bus fleet and laying off about 135 drivers and mechanics.
"It's going to break my heart," Aune said. "Losing all my benefits, it's just so hard to think about."
School officials say privatizing the fleet may save more than $1.4 million a year, allowing the district to pump that money back into the classroom.
Complicating matters is the fact that the district's contract with the union that represents the transportation employees expired last summer, and the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement.
Some union members believe the district's decision to consider privatizing the fleet is just a heavyhanded tactic to influence the ongoing contract negotiations.
School officials, however, say the move is being driven by their desire to be more efficient -- among other things, they are considering reconfiguring routes and reviewing the roles of "standby" drivers to improve operations.
"We have worked with them in looking at every kind of cost saving that may be out there," said Jeff Priess, the district's executive director of business services, "and we will continue to look for ways to be more efficient."
Late last year, the district went out for proposals to privatize the fleet, and last month it announced that First Student Inc. -- a company that already has 21 contracts in Minnesota -- had submitted the lowest bid. The school board is slated to vote on whether to contract out transportation services at its meeting on Monday. Any change would likely take effect after this school year.
Priess said First Student is interested in hiring many of the district's current drivers, as they are the ones who best know the Robbinsdale routes and students.
But drivers say they suspect that the company will offer significantly lower wages and benefits than the district offers now. They also worry that veteran drivers will see their retirement plans evaporate.
Priess disputed concerns about wages and retirement, saying there's a possibility the district might be able to retain a few of the drivers who are close to retirement to keep their savings intact.
"Some of the benefits will be less," Priess said. "We've made no bones about that."
Matt Toburen, an organizer with Service Employees International Union's Local 284, said he's not sure why the school district feels the need to cut transportation costs. He said the drivers' wages are in line with what other districts pay, as are the school's overall transportation costs per student.
He also said the drivers have been willing to make several concessions -- including wages -- in an effort to help the district save money. Among their proposals: putting more kids on buses, cutting down on overtime and rerouting for improved efficiency.
"Drivers love their jobs and want to continue to be part of the District 281 family," Toburen said. "They will do what it takes to continue to be part of that family."
At a school board meeting last week, several parents spoke out against the privatization plan, saying they want to keep the current crop of drivers because they are caring, well-trained and almost always on time.
Ana Townsley's 3-year-old daughter, Priscilla, rides Aune's bus a couple of times a week to attend a preschool program in Robbinsdale.
Because Aune's own children have special needs, Townsley said, she immediately connected with Priscilla, who has a speech delay. Townsley called the prospect of Aune and other drivers losing their jobs "just horrible."
"They provide a great service for me and my daughter," Townsley said. "It's so obvious just how much they care. I think this would be a huge mistake to let them go, and I don't understand why this is all about money. It should be about the students and their safety."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469