04/22/13 — District faces lack of drivers

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District faces lack of drivers

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 22, 2013 1:46 PM

Hiring, and retaining, bus drivers in the school system remains a challenge, officials say.

The Board of Education recently discussed some of the most pressing issues faced by the district -- from providing sufficient hours to lifting restrictions for potential candidates lacking a high school diploma.

Kicking off the debate was the problem of overtime for the drivers.

"We currently have about 40 bus drivers that are in combination positions, but they do not exceed 40 hours a week," said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for fiscal services. "In 2008-09, we did have instructional assistants that drove buses as well but that did result in overtime -- $100,000 a year in just overtime pay."

Overtime affects all positions, she said, noting that the practice was discontinued in 2008-09 due to budget constraints.

"It has been more difficult to keep bus drivers since we discontinued overtime," Ms. Barwick said.

Board chairman John Grantham asked if there was another option, such as custodians doubling up as drivers. Ms. Barwick replied that most of them at this point are full-time, so the overtime issue would create a conflict.

Board member Thelma Smith expressed concern over bus drivers leaving positions.

"I don't know. I just believe there ought to be somewhere, somehow, some way to find something for that person to do where they don't have to go into overtime," she said. "Is it better for us to try to save our drivers so they don't go looking for employment somewhere else? Have we exhausted all our means?"

Ms. Barwick said one suggestion bandied about has been to have two different bus drivers per route.

Mrs. Smith said perhaps the subject can be part of the upcoming budget discussion.

Legislators are currently debating some of the teacher assistant allotments, Ms. Barwick said, which could entail the possibility of some more cuts.

"We don't have a lot of teacher assistants driving buses," said Dr. Steve Taylor, schools superintendent, adding his hope that such cuts will not take place.

Salaries for bus drivers are not set by the state, Ms. Barwick explained, but there is a state minimum and maximum, which are considered part of school board policy.

The role of a bus driver is unique, officials said, in that their workday is divided up into a few hours in the morning and a few more in the afternoon. Some may only be required to work two or three hours a day. Coupled with that are weather issues and being on-call, which can create logistical problems, Ms. Barwick said.

Board member Arnold Flowers said he feels like more can be done by the school system to improve the situation.

In addition to addressing issues of overtime, he suggested the board look at the policy requiring drivers to have a high school diploma. He said he understands in principle, since their business is education, but the policy not only limits the district but potential candidates otherwise qualified for the job.

"That's something we could change," he said.

Flowers also cited concerns about discipline on the buses, finding a way to purchase cameras on the buses and two-way radios for drivers, and possibly doing away with the requirement that a bus driver must have a CDL specialized license.

"That's one thing on the state level that really encumbers us," he said of the latter. "Give them training, require the CDL and then only give them three hours a day (of employment).

"I want to help Mr. (Raymond) Smith (transportation director) with this. I want to help our parents and students."

Several said they had no problem with relaxing the restrictions on the high school diploma, and Grantham asked for a policy revision, which could be discussed at the next meeting.

Mrs. Smith also reminded the board not to overlook the fact that the school system still comes under the jurisdiction of the state.

"We are graded every year on our transportation services and the efficiency of it," she said. "We're funded based on that.

"We have got to think of our parents and these children. We're hauling their most precious products and we need to do all we can because we have got to get them to school, we have got to get them home safely."