School bus drivers say that Davis County School District officials are trying to scare them with threats of bus system privatization so they will accept a pay reduction and 50 percent benefit cut.

More the 50 bus drivers meeting Monday afternoon at Farmington Junior High School said they oppose the cuts. District officials and driver representatives are scheduled to meet at the bargaining table Friday.District officials have said the district must either cut existing program costs or solicit bids for privatization. They have asked that over a two year period drivers take an average $2 cut in wages and a 50 percent reduction in retirement and health insurance benefits.

"How can they say privatization is better? Two school districts did it and found it was more expensive. It would be so expensive to change back so they are stuck with it," said one bus driver.

"They are trying to scare us," said another.

The school district commissioned a study last year about transportation system privatization. The study showed the district could save money by selling its buses to a private company and have it operate the system.

"The possibility of privatization is an option that must be considered, especially in view of budgetary constraints," Dr. Dean Penrod, assistant superintendent for support services, said. Penrod will represent the district in the negotiations.

The average district bus driver salary of $11.82 an hour is $2 higher than surrounding school districts, officials said. Utah School Employee Association representative Mike Christensen said the data is incorrect, and drivers vowed they would present correct facts to the school board.

"The cost per mile is lower than other districts our size in the state. It is lower than any district with the same density of students," Christensen said.

Bus drivers in Granite School district can earn up to $10.38 an hour. In Murray School District they can earn up to $10.58. Davis County School District drivers can earn up to $12.36 an hour.

With the proposed pay scale bus drivers would receive the same hourly wage as mechanics and head elementary school custodians. The district also wants to pay drivers an entry level wage for extra runs.

The district employs 141 bus drivers. District officials say the cut in benefits is only fair because drivers only work four hours a day, but receive the same benefits as full-time employees.

For 15 of the district's highest paid bus drivers it would mean a cut from $12.36 an hour to $10.23 and hour. The cuts would amount to about 20-25 percent of current wages and benefits, drivers said.

Gus Petersen, who has driven a district bus for eight years, said the wage cuts would prompt veteran drivers to look elsewhere for work.

"If they keep cutting wages it will get down to the point where all the good drivers will leave. They won't have anybody who is responsible," Petersen said. "They will get inexperienced drivers and will have a high turnover rate."