Bus drivers demand change

Published 9:43 pm Thursday, March 30, 2017

Nearly 50 Suffolk Public Schools bus drivers planned to be absent from work Friday in a demonstration for improved pay and benefits.

Suffolk Bus Drivers Association president Angelo Stone said drivers are staging a “sick-out” on Friday as part of an ongoing struggle for better pay, retirement and post-retirement health care, and answers to their regular job concerns.

“I want them to hear us out,” he said. “To come out to the table and be fair.”

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School division spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw reported 48 drivers Thursday afternoon who had said they would be absent Friday. Stone said there are 132 drivers in the system. Other bus drivers and licensed substitutes are compensating by covering more routes.

Some bus routes at schools have been canceled for Friday. A full list is available here. Other routes might still be late. Early drop-off is being offered at all elementary schools at 7:45 a.m., but all children must be picked up by the normal dismissal time. All student absences are excused.

More than 50 drivers met with Suffolk school representatives at King’s Fork Middle School on Thursday to discuss their concerns and have their voices heard. Local media, including the Suffolk News-Herald, were denied access to the meeting.

“They’re a very important part of our team,” Bradshaw said. “So many parents rely on them, because they don’t have their own transportation.”

Drivers were grouped at the meeting by their respective schools to share their concerns. Assistant Superintendent Dr. LaToya Harrison expressed appreciation for them in a plea to keep them working, Bradshaw said.

“It’s an opportunity for them to share in a structured way,” Bradshaw said.

She said Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney will establish a bus driver advisory committee to act on the drivers’ concerns, and school principals have been advised to meet with drivers to discuss work condition changes. Bradshaw said Whitney was not at Thursday’s meeting because he was meeting with city officials.

“We want them to feel part of the team,” she said.

Many drivers left the meeting early. Bus driver Kimberly Hall said the meeting was “a waste of time.” She did not appreciate the absence of Whitney, who has come under fire for his salary. A 14-percent raise is proposed in the budget for him; he already received most of that after a performance evaluation last fall.

“They just keep asking us what we want from them, but nobody is responding to anything,” Hall said.

The drivers have been among the many employees of Suffolk Public Schools pleading for better pay and benefits.

Hourly pay for bus drivers currently ranges from $11.71 to $17.79. With the budget approved last week, it would rise to $12 for beginners to $17.96 for more experienced drivers.

An incentive program for safe driving and low absenteeism also is proposed for next year. Drivers who miss 10 or fewer days throughout the year would receive $1,000.

“They bought three brand new schools, 27 brand new school buses, GPS’s and tablets that don’t work, but they couldn’t find money in the budget for bus drivers,” Stone said.

He said that bus drivers haven’t received a raise since he first started in 2011. Bradshaw said this is incorrect, and in the past 25 years, there have only been three years without a raise for bus drivers.

“Drivers have received the same raises as all support staff every time,” she wrote in an email.

Mary Chandler, Suffolk Bus Drivers Association vice president, said she has been working in Suffolk for 12 years. The change in what she actually takes home in hourly pay over the years has been approximately $2.38, she said.

“It’s not showing in my paperwork,” she said. “It’s not showing in my pocket.”

The bus drivers have voiced other concerns as well, but some are not optimistic about change.

“I feel like nothing is going to get done,” substitute bus aide Lakeshia Bolling said. “Until they can wear the pants of a bus driver or a bus aide, they’re on the outside looking in.”

She said being a bus driver can be dangerous and nerve-wracking.

“You’re watching the road, and you have children distracting you while you’re communicating with dispatch on the radio,” she said.

One of their concerns is appropriate discipline for students who act up on the bus.

“A driver said she wrote up a student 22 times,” Bolling said. “Something could have been done before it got to that issue.”

Bus aide Faith Holloman said she hopes the drivers and aides are able to make changes happen.

“I love what I do, but don’t forget about us,” she said. “I think some changes are going to be made.”