Updates: Alleged Firing of School Bus Driver Becomes Facebook Event; District Denies Firing; Mom Makes Statement and Witness Tells What He Saw

  • Jesus Chuy Saldana says he was fired from his job as a bus driver at El Tejon Unified School District on Thursday, Jan. 20. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

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    Jesus Chuy Saldana says he was fired from his job as a bus driver at El Tejon Unified School District on Thursday, Jan. 20. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

  • Saldana displays a work schedule, which he says was given to him every one to two weeks by supervisor Patrice Barnes. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

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    Saldana displays a work schedule, which he says was given to him every one to two weeks by supervisor Patrice Barnes. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

  • Close-up view of the work most recent schedule Saldana says was being given to him every week or two by supervisor Patrice Barnes. It indicates he has driving assignments from Tuesday, Jan. 15 through Friday, Jan. 28. Maintenance, Operations and Transportation (MOT) Director Fernando Nieto looked at this photo and said, he does not know what this is, pointing out that it is not on ETUSD letterhead. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

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    Close-up view of the work most recent schedule Saldana says was being given to him every week or two by supervisor Patrice Barnes. It indicates he has driving assignments from Tuesday, Jan. 15 through Friday, Jan. 28. Maintenance, Operations and Transportation (MOT) Director Fernando Nieto looked at this photo and said, he does not know what this is, pointing out that it is not on ETUSD letterhead. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

  • Saldana and his family watch a Bakersfield television news report about his alleged employment termination. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

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    Saldana and his family watch a Bakersfield television news report about his alleged employment termination. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]

  • Joey Teare and Alex McCue holding signs saying Sit 2 Save Chuy at the peaceful demonstration at Frazier Mountain High School on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. [Photo by Katy Teare]

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    Joey Teare and Alex McCue holding signs saying Sit 2 Save Chuy at the peaceful demonstration at Frazier Mountain High School on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. [Photo by Katy Teare]

UPDATE-FRAZIER PARK (Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 at 3:30 p.m.)—Additional information regarding the accident at the San Miguel school bus stop in Frazier Park on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 20 has been given to The Mountain Enterprise today. The new information is from a father of two ETUSD students who was in the vehicle directly behind  that driven by Julie Nichols, whose statement is below. Her actions and report to the El Tejon Unified School District administration office on Thursday, Jan. 20 led the new transportation supervisor for ETUSD to call Jesus ‘Chuy’ Saldaña down to the office. Fernando Nieto reportedly told Saldaña that his services were no longer desired by the district. Saldaña said he was told he was "terminated" and "to turn in my hours." At the time, Saldaña had in his possession a two-week schedule for driving, with six days still remaining. He said he has retired twice from the district, but had been called back to drive the school bus and has driven avery day for the past two years. See details in early reports below. The observations of Benjamin Houghton about the incident at the bus stop on January 20 sharply differ with those of Julie Nichols.

Benjamin Houghton of Frazier Park said that he was driving a white Dodge Ram pickup just behind the vehicle driven by Julie Nichols. "She was within five feet of the rear of the bus," driven by Chuy Saldaña that morning, Houghton said. Houghton estimates his own vehicle was about 15 feet away from the rear of the bus (about half a car link behind Nichols). He said that the reason bus driver Saldaña flipped on his school bus "stop" signs was that "two little girls were crossing the street in front of the bus, from the left."  Nichols’ car was too close to the rear of the bus to be able to see the children, Houghton reports.

Houghton also said that what he observed regarding the manner in which Nichols ran over her son’s foot differs from her account below. He said that the air brakes on the bus would not alllow it to roll backward, and that it did not. He said Nichols actually pulled forward, trying to hurriedly drop her son off and drive on. He said that if she had pulled backward, "the boy would have been hit by the open back door before he could have been hit by the front tires. He was reaching in the back seat to pull out his book bag." Houghton said firmly that the youngster’s foot was under the rear tire. He also said that he heard the 12-year-old cry out, "Mom! Mom! You’re on my foot!"

Monica and Benjamin Houghton said they were so concerned about the difference between Nichols’ account of the morning’s events and what he witnessed that the couple went to the El Tejon Unified School District administration office on Monday, Jan. 24 to speak with Maintenance, Operations and Transportation (MOT) Supervisor Fernando Nieto. Mr. and Mrs. Houghton report that Nieto appeared impatient and uninterested in the additional facts. "He wasn’t fired, he was a substitute," they say Nieto repeated. The parents were concerned that the supervisor did not seek clarification about the facts of the event that Benjamin Houghton had witnessed. They said Nieto seemed eager to have them leave his office and they did.

On Thursday, Jan. 27 both of Houghton’s children participated in the protests against the actions of the ETUSD district administration in regard to Chuy Saldaña. Their daughter was part of the bus sit-in at the El Tejon Middle School and their son participated in the sit-in at the high school.

UPDATE-FRAZIER PARK (Thursday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.)—Julie Nichols is angry today. The Frazier Park resident says her son at the high school has been threatened by other students. She says The Mountain Enterprise newspaper, which did not use her name, spoke of a "Mom" in the print issue today, but did not tell what she experienced on Thursday, Jan.20. She wants to tell that now.

Nichols said that she has a weekday schedule which does not vary. She leaves her home with her younger son, who is 12, at 7:30 each morning. They stop at Don’s Market for a couple of minutes, to pick up water for his basketball practice and a muffin and milk for breakfast. Then she returns to San Miguel Trail to drop her son off at the bus stop and continue on to work. Usually, she says, her son waits for the bus for about 10 minutes. It arrives about 7:50 a.m. to take him on to El Tejon middle school.

On Thursday, Jan. 20 Nichols said she and her son followed their regular schedule. But as they were exiting Don’s, they saw an El Tejon Unified School District bus crossing the four-way stop from Frazier Mountain Park Road to Monterey Trail at about 7:34 a.m. She said at first she was confused, because the bus was much too early.

Nichols thought perhaps it was the high school bus, but as she got into the car, she saw the bus pass the clinic building at the intersection of Mt. Pinos Way, then head up to her son’s bus stop. She said she felt panicked, and hurriedly drove up to the San Miguel school bus stop, stopping15 feet behind the bus.

"He was at the side of the road, and I was on the road,"she said. At San Miguel, she saw other surprised parents, "dragging their children like luggage, hurrying them along, unprepared for a bus arriving to the stop 15 minutes before its usual time."

At this point Nichols stops her story for a moment, and acknowledges that it is possible there is a printed schedule someplace in the school district that may say that the San Miguel pick-up time for El Tejon students may be 7:40 or so, but the constant time which the neighborhood has become accustomed to is 7:50 a.m., she said, then resumes the tale.

That Thursday, she said she was directly behind the bus when it pulled over onto the side of the road on the grade.
"It was strange, because there were about 3 or 4 kids at the stop who got onto the bus, but the stop sign wasn’t extended on the back of the bus." She said the other parents were running up the street, one she remembers coming from a house near the Mortenson Insurance office.

Her engine was still running and her son hopped out of the car, closed the passenger door, then stepped back to get his book bag from the back seat. At that moment, Nichols says the school bus rolled slightly backward on the grade.

"In the chaos of it I rolled over Dylans foot. I rolled back. The panic of it all was my fault as much as it was Chuy’s fault," NIchols says. She said the mother who had come from the insurance office area put her arm around the boy and asked him if he was ok.

"Dylan was just a deer in headlights," she says. "He didn’t say a word. he was very quiet as he got back into the car. I think he was just surprised at first."

Nichols says she looked up and noticed that the bus flipped the "stop" sign twice as it was trying to pull back onto the roadway. She said that was confusing to oncoming traffic and that drivers didn’t know what the bus was trying to do.

"The stop sign usually goes up when the driver is pulling over to stop and pick up children, not when they are pulling out to get back on the road," she said.

Nichols said she made a "U" turn and took her son down to the Mountain Communities Health Clinic in Lebec. She said she had to wait for about 45 minutes until it opened. They did an X-ray and gave him a boot-cast there. Her son’s little toe was fractured. "It hurts a lot," she said. He will have to wear the boot for about six weeks.

"I went to the district office right after I got out of the clinic," Nichols said. "No one is trying to tarnish a 37-year driving record. That is not my intent. I witnessed a situation that caused another situation that caused an injury. I was not going to the school office because I wanted to sue the district. I had no desire for it to have an impact on anybody’s job. I went to the school to report an issue that could affect the safety of other children."


UPDATE—FRAZIER PARK (Monday, Jan. 24 at 12 p.m.)—On Friday, Jan. 21 The Mountain Enterprise interviewed Jesus “Chuy” Saldaña of Lebec in person and photographed the school bus work schedule he says he was given which extended through January 28, a day when, according to the schedule, he was scheduled to drive two shifts for El Tejon Unified School District.

According to Saldaña, he was told on Thursday, Jan. 20 by Maintenance, Operations and Transportation (MOT) Supervisor Fernando Nieto that he (Saldaña) had been "terminated." Nieto denies that happened. But Saldaña has not driven a school bus for the district since Jan. 20, despite his written schedule.

In a telephone interview with MOT Nieto on Monday, Jan. 24 at 11:25 a.m., Nieto asked that we clearly report that Mr. Saldaña was a "substitute" bus driver. "We do not provide a driving schedule for sub bus drivers," Nieto stated. "We do not know when they will be needed. The schedule can change. He is a freelance driver. We have no obligation to him and he has no obligation to us. He can turn down work."

Nieto also said, "I did not use the words ‘you are terminated.’ He is not a regular employee. I cannot ‘terminate’ him."

Nieto said he did not feel our earlier report adequately emphasized Saldaña’s substitute status, "You have an agenda," he said, addressing this reporter, "You are not reporting accurately."

We replied that our interest is in the facts, and reporting the facts is our agenda. We asked what the document given to Saldaña was, if it is not a driving schedule.

Nieto again insisted that the man known as "Chuy" to hundreds of ETUSD school kids for 14 years has a substitute status. Saldaña, in an earlier interview, said he had retired once from the Los Angeles MTA system and twice from ETUSD, but that the school district had called him back twice. The second time he said he would be willing to drive a bus on an as-needed basis. He did not claim to be a "regular" employee, but indicated he has been driving on a consistent basis, each week. [See a photo of Saldaña's most recent work schedule, covering this week and last week, at right.]

"This incident at the bus stop had no bearing whatsoever," MOT Nieto said. "I called him in on Thursday to get his point of view on the accident." Saldaña said in an interview with The Mountain Enterprise that he told Nieto he didn’t even know that an accident had occurred.

Reportedly, a rushing parent, late to the bus stop, had been pursuing the school bus driven by Saldaña. When the parent let her son out of her vehicle, she rolled over her child’s foot. She called the district, according to the report by members of Saldaña’s family and MOT Nieto.

Saldaña said he believes the parent implied that he was to blame for the parent’s own action. He says he was not early to the bus stop, and that he believes he was actually four minutes behind. "Parents are told to have their children to the stop five minutes before pick up time. That is a rule," Saldaña said. He emphasized that in 24 years of driving a Los Angeles city bus and in 14 years with ETUSD he had not had a ticket or an accident.

"I’m a safe driver," he said. He also emphasized that his goal is to "clear my name," adding, "this time maybe I will retire for good."

MOT Nieto’s parting comment was: "He is a freelance driver. He has no schedule with us. He has no commitment to us, we have no commitment to him. They [substitutes] work on an as-needed basis, if they are available."

We asked Nieto to please take a look at the schedule we photographed Friday, Jan. 21 at Saldaña’s home and to tell us what it is, if not a schedule given to "Chuy" Saldaña for driving an ETUSD school bus.

In the meantime: Facebook chatter regarding this matter has shifted to discussion of a protest "sit in" at an ETUSD school on Thursday in response to what is perceived by students and parents as an unjust dismissal of Saldaña.


By Patric Hedlund
UPDATE—FRAZIER PARK (Friday, Jan. 21 at 2:42 p.m.)—At about 2 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21 Fernando Nieto, director of Maintenance, Operations and Transportation (MOT) at ETUSD stated categorically in an interview that no threat of legal action has been made by any parent against the school district this week regarding a bus stop incident. He also stated, while saying he is unable to talk about any specific employee, that no bus driver has been relieved and that there is no change in employment status for any driver who works for the district on a regular, part time or substitute basis.

At 2:30 p.m., bus driver Jesus “Chuy” Saldaña of Lebec reported in an interview with The Mountain Enterprise from his home in Lebec that after he had completed his route yesterday, Thursday, Jan. 20, MOT Nieto called his home and asked him to come down to the district office. Saldaña said he got there at 10:30 a.m. and was asked by Nieto: "Did you know about the accident?"

Saldaña relates: "I said, ‘I don’t know about any accident.’ Mr. Nieto said, ‘You’re terminated. We don’t want a lawsuit against the school.’ I didn’t know what to say. I just said ‘thank you very much,’ and thought, ‘well, maybe it is time to really retire.’"

Saldaña said he has retired twice from ETUSD, after retiring from the Los Angeles MTA sytem, but has been called twice by the school district to return to work for them. Now, he says, "I just want to clear my name. I’ve been driving 38 years, I’m a safe driver. I don’t know about this. It sounds like it is the parent’s fault. I worked for 24 years driving an MTA transit bus in Los Angeles, and have worked for 14 years for ETUSD. In all these time there has not been one ticket or problem."

By Sara Woerter
FRAZIER PARK (Friday, Jan. 21 at 12 p.m.)—Most everyone who has known a student attending the El Tejon Unified School District will know of friendly bus driver Jesus “Chuy” Saldaña. It is being reported on Facebook that on January 20, Chuy was fired from the district.

An event was created on Facebook called “Boycott of the FMHS Bus System!!!” It was created by Chelsea Cooperoth of New Hampshire, who said in an interview Friday, Jan. 21 that she grew up in Frazier Park and that Chuy was her bus driver from middle school through high school. Coooperoth proposed that, starting on Monday, Jan. 24, students refuse to use the transportation provided by the school district from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. Cooperoth proposed to continue the boycott until Chuy returns as a bus driver.

Over 90 individuals—ranging from FMHS graduates to present students to concerned parents—have said that they will be participating in this Facebook “event” in honor of Chuy. The event was broadcast to about 500 individuals via Facebook.
Reports from granddaughter Sarah Champin on Facebook report that “…What happened was, he [Chuy] was on time for the bus stop [Thursday, Jan. 20] and one kid was late, and the mom was chasing the bus and ran her son’s foot over, so they fired him because they can’t afford to be sued and it was for an accident that wasn’t even his fault.”

Frazier Mountain High School student Benjamin Grajeda posted on the Facebook page (using facebook jargon): “Wow chewy is my freaken UNCLE!!!!!!!!! jk but he is like an uncle to me =/ i will be there okay. ”

Chuy has worked for the El Tejon Unified School District for about 15 years.

Fernando Nieto, director of Maintenance, Operations and Transportation at ETUSD stated categorically in an interview Friday, Jan. 21 that no threat of legal action has been made by any parent against the school district. He also stated, although he is unable to talk about any specific employment issue, that no bus driver has been relieved and that there is no change in employment status for any driver who works for the district on a regular, part time or substitute basis.

This is part of the January 28, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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