Before sunrise, a schoolgirl will shine and wave a flashlight so her bus driver can find her in the darkness of the desert.
"It's pitch black, and all you see is the flashlight," said Debbie Clifford, a school bus driver in Moapa Valley in northeastern Clark County near Utah.
Clifford is one of many school bus drivers wishing they had a light to guide them through this summer of employment uncertainty.
In preparation for the coming school year, the Clark County School District consolidated school bell times across the system and eliminated jobs for 210 drivers. The district is trying to close a $50 million budget gap for the new school year as it negotiates with its employee unions for concessions.
Five of the 16 rural school bus drivers who worked in Moapa Valley have been laid off, but they are hoping they will get their jobs back. The drivers estimate that a smaller work force could mean much longer bus routes for children in the new school year.
PARENTS ARE WORRIED
"I'm upset," said Stacey Dupee, a mother whose two elementary school children wait for the bus at 6 a.m. She does not want them outside any earlier.
"It's not fair. What's going to happen to our kids? It becomes a safety issue," Dupee said.
Dupee, who also has a child in high school, said her kids' buses are always full, which she believes is a sign of the times.
Families have become more dependent on buses taking their children to school because parents are too busy working or finding work in these tough economic times. In Moapa Valley, more parents are traveling farther from home to find employment.
"What are we supposed to do? Quit our jobs so we can stay home?" Dupee wondered.
WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
Because of employee turnover and the unique demands of rural bus routes, transportation officials have reassured the bus drivers in Moapa Valley of the likelihood that they will be rehired before school starts in August. Then again, they can't say for sure.
District officials, who will be negotiating contracts with employee unions this month, have repeatedly warned that more job cuts might be necessary if concessions are not reached.
The uncertainty is unsettling. "This is the first time we've gone through this and we don't know what to do. Nobody knows the answers," Clifford said.
Because bus drivers work nine months, they save money to make it through the summer. They're now depleting their savings without the guarantee of a job in the fall.
Officially, district officials say they are assessing the situation and will staff according to the demand.
Chris Garvey, the School Board member who represents Moapa Valley, sympathizes with the drivers.
"It's not right to have people living in limbo," Garvey said. "We know this is devastating to people. It's tough not knowing where you stand."
Garvey noted that it is harder to impose changes and sacrifices on rural areas, where there is not the same economies of scale and access to resources.
In mid-August, drivers will get a first look at the bus routes for the new school year. Drivers get to pick their routes based on seniority.
If the district does not hire back or replace the laid-off drivers in Moapa Valley, Kent Creamer, a bus driver, estimated that the average bus trip for a student would have to increase from 30 minutes to an hour or more.
The middle school girl with the flashlight will have to be by the road by 5 a.m. or earlier, he said.
Renee Gross, a mother whose three children went to schools in Moapa Valley, said the locations of rural schools make it difficult for most children to walk to school.
Lyon Middle School is at the southern end of the Moapa Valley in Overton while Grant Bowler Elementary School is at the northern end of the valley in Logandale.
Moapa Valley High School is situated in the middle. Depending on where a student lives, he or she might be able to walk to one of the schools, but definitely not all three.
In Moapa Valley, there are no street lights, sidewalks and or even pavement in a lot of places, Gross said.
The speed limit on the main thoroughfare, state Highway 169, is 55 mph.
"There's not very much traffic, but people can go that fast," Clifford said. "When there was (road) construction last year, it was really dangerous."
Bus drivers in Moapa Valley average 120 miles a day because they must go outside the valley to pick up kids in outlying areas, including Valley of Fire, Warm Springs, the Moapa River Indian Reservation and Echo Bay on Lake Mead.
Bus drivers also take students into Utah and Las Vegas, which is 67 miles away, for field trips and athletic events.
LIFE OF A RURAL BUS DRIVER
On rural bus rides, children will often squeal "Don't hit the rabbits!"
"Teachers have 30 screaming children in a classroom," laid-off school bus driver Marie Barrows said. "We're driving 80 of them. We're trying to keep them safe."
In May, when Barrows was taking the Moapa Valley High School track team to the state championship in Las Vegas, a car crossed the median and banged the back of the school bus on Interstate 15.
"I screamed 'Hold, on!' I knew he was going to hit us," Barrows recalled.
No one was hurt. The driver of the wrecked car drove off while Barrows was reporting the accident to the state Highway Patrol.
"It was like a scene out of a cartoon," Barrows recalled because she could not believe the battered car could even move.
But Barrows said she loves driving a school bus. She acknowledges that most drivers live at the poverty level, typically making between $18,000 to $19,000 a year. Starting pay is $15 an hour. Many drivers might only work six hours a day. The most senior drivers make about $30,000.
Barrows is the main bread winner for four boys ages 4 to 15 and her husband. She is grateful because her insurance pays $1,400 a month for her family's medical prescriptions.
Barrows became a bus driver when her husband, Howard Barrows, began having seizures and could no longer work in floor and tile.
"You don't make a lot as a bus driver, but you know what? It was enough to keep my family in the valley. My number one goal is to keep my family here," Barrows said.
She feels people look out for each other in Moapa Valley. When the family lost their house to foreclosure in 2008, they soon found another house to rent near the high school.
Barrows' family moved to Moapa Valley more than 10 years when her oldest son was old enough for kindergarten.
She wanted to give him the same kind of rural childhood she had when she grew up near Lone Mountain in the 1970s and 1980s.
While the neighborhood has since become part of the Las Vegas sprawl, it was considered "way out there" when she was a child, she said.
To stay in Moapa Valley, Barrows said she might have to get a job hauling dirt. She would make more money.
Bus drivers "get paid a lot less than people do to drive dirt," Barrows said. "We're driving people's children."
Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@ reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.