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News Story
Updated: 07/27/2013 08:00:05AM

Bus driver benefits will not get cut, substitutes hard to find

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FILE PHOTO
A student smiles as his school bus pulls into school. Recommendations to get rid of healthcare benefits for bus drivers that work fewer than 30 hours per week have been eliminated for this coming school year. Bus drivers will continue to receive health benefits for working a minimum of 18 hours.

By ALIDA SCHAT

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With the start of the school year quickly approaching, transportation authorities have reached an agreement regarding public school bus driver benefits and route changes.

Recommendations to get rid of health care benefits for bus drivers that work fewer than 30 hours per week have been eliminated for this coming school year. Bus drivers will continue to receive health benefits for working a minimum of 18 hours.

“For this school year, for the health benefits, nothing will change,” said Rob Davis, senior director of Support Services for Polk County Public Schools.

The recommendation to decrease health benefits in an effort to balance the budget, arose because of the recently changed national health care mandate that all employees are guaranteed health insurance for working a minimum of 30 hours per week. Because the Polk County School District guarantees their bus drivers 25 hours per week, this change would have affected the large majority of bus drivers working for the Polk County schools.

Changes to school bus driver benefits may still change for the 2014-15 school year, but that has yet to be negotiated. In order for changes to benefits to take affect, the union has to agree.

“Because it’s a union and it hasn’t been negotiated through the union, the district can’t take away benefits from them if they work less than
30 hours,” said Davis.

Once the issue comes to the negotiation phase, the union can either agree to accept 30 hours as the minimum eligibility to receive benefits, or the issue can go to impasse, which would further extend negotiation for an indefinite amount of time.

“Our drivers and attendants don’t have to worry about anything this year and I think hopefully we will be able to come up with a win-win situation, by either guaranteeing drivers 30 hours per week or splitting up the hours to where they’re getting that,” said Davis.

Splitting up the hours could mean adding extra hours through field trips and activity runs so that drivers can tally a total of 30 work hours.

“I would say that 98 percent of our bus drivers drive for benefits,” said Davis. “The benefits bring them in the door and I’m scared that if we lost it, that could be a difficult situation for us in recruiting future drivers.”

Recruiting substitute bus drivers has been more difficult this year than in past years. Davis is not sure what the reasoning is for this but the economy turning around is a possible explanation.

“It seems when the economy
was bad in 2008, 2009 and 2010, we had 150 applicants at all times. We’re trying to fill up classes with 30 and we’re getting 15 and 10,” said Davis of the current sub pool.

Davis plans to contact the bus drivers that have decided to not come back and find out why.

“It may be as simple as the
economy turning around or it may be ‘I’ve read things in the paper that we may not get benefits,’” said Davis.

Recruiting drivers for charter schools is a task on hand as well. Though Charter schools can choose how they want to provide school transportation for their students, some schools choose to use public school bus transportation. Compass Middle School in Bartow provides most of their transportation through the public school system.

“We use the same buses as Bartow Middle, except for one bus to Winter Haven,” said Assistant Principle of Compass, Anita Fine. Compass pays a certain fee to use the county’s buses. The trip to Winter Haven is for a small number of students and the county does not provide that transportation. “It’s very difficult to find someone to cover that route,” said Fine.

Though each charter school is different, Fine said Compass Middle School follows the same umbrella for health benefits as the public schools do.

Another concern for school bus drivers was loosing routes and further downsizing. “(With) downsizing we’re pretty much at the limit. We can’t downsize anymore,” said Davis. “At one time we were looking at different bell schedules but
we’re reverting back to the bell schedules of 2012-2013, so their routes should be almost identical to the ones that they had last year,” added Davis.

Davis is pleased that bus drivers will not suffer any drastic changes this year, and he hopes to negotiate a similarly positive outcome for the following school year. “This year they will have the benefits for
18 hours and we will do everything we can to keep benefits. They may work 30 hours but we will give them those opportunities,” said Davis.




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