Bus drivers question schedule

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Some Suffolk City School Bus Drivers Association members have raised concerns over the school district’s proposed new bell schedule.

At their regularly monthly meeting Tuesday, members questioned how drivers out sick could be covered with 30 fewer drivers overall — which school district officials claim the proposal would achieve — and whether a new contract and schedule will be sprung on them “a week before school starts.”

“I don’t understand how they are going to cover all of the schools with 130 drivers (as opposed to about 160) if 20 of them are out on sick leave,” association President Robert Warf told the meeting.

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Drivers and assistants also worry they would not receive a raise under the School Board’s proposal, which officials say would save the system about $800,000.

The current schedule uses 163 contracted bus drivers delivering students to high and middle schools that would operate from 7:40 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and to elementary schools that would be in session from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

The proposed new system would use separate schedules for high and middle schools and would divide elementary schools into “A” and “B” schedules, thereby shedding 30 drivers.

The proposal would have middle school students arriving at 7 a.m., while students from “B” elementary schools — Booker T. Washington, Hillpoint, Oakland, Creekside, Nansemond Parkway and Southwestern — would arrive at 9:10 a.m. instead of the current 8:30 a.m.

High school students, getting an extra 45 minutes’ sleep, would be some of the main beneficiaries, Kevin Alston, the district’s assistant superintendent for administrative services, told a School Board meeting in January.

At the association meeting Tuesday at King’s Fork Middle School, bus driver Beverly Patton said officials have “an awful lot of questions” to iron out, though the proposal “makes a lot of sense to me.”

“If the School Board wants to do it, they best get the lead out and get it approved … especially to give transportation time to figure it all out,” she said.

After also raising concerns over how the Route 58 widening would affect getting kids to school, and how any new contract would treat pay rates, she proclaimed: “Bottom line, they consider bus drivers the lowest person on the totem pole. You have no authority; all you can do is hold the wheel.”

Despite saying the proposal makes sense, Patton also said it could be problematic for families trying to organize before- and after-school supervision for children.

“I have people now say ‘Can you come 10 minutes earlier, because I have to get to wor?’” she said. “There’s going to be some problems with parents.”

She added, “My problem with the whole thing is they need to give bus drivers a pay raise. They need to understand that the low dog needs to be fed every now and then.”

The district’s bus drivers and assistants earn from $11.03 to $17.60 an hour, Alston said, a range lower than in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg-James City County, Norfolk and Isle of Wight County, according to a Region 2 survey.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake, Newport News and Portsmouth, which appear not to use a range system, pay $15.47, $11.36 and $10.41, respectively, for their bus drivers.

District Coordinator for Transportation Lonnie Reavis said contracted drivers and assistants were briefed on the new schedule at a mandatory meeting on Jan. 28.

Workers received an “extensive” overview of how it would work and had every question answered, he said.

Alston said officials had not been invited to make a separate presentation to the association. Inviting themselves would be “like Big Brother watching. … We stay out until they ask us to come,” he said.

Extending contracts to 6 ¼ hours per day from the current five and going to a four-bell schedule would eliminate the current problems of finding substitutes to cover when drivers are out sick and double-runs, he said.

At least one public information session on the proposal, 7 p.m. on Feb. 28 at King’s Fork Middle School, will be announced at Thursday night’s School Board meeting, Alston said.

If the proposal goes ahead, new contracts would be issued in early June, he said.

Alston indicated that the estimated $800,000 savings in transportation costs would save cuts elsewhere as the district faces a potential $8 million budget shortfall.