Bus drivers demand respect in Hillsborough
Respect was the prevailing theme at Monday night's town hall meeting for school bus drivers in Hillsborough. Driver after driver at the Beulah Baptist Church in West Tampa told five School Board members they're not respected by school administrators and they're not respected by students.
As we did during the first three meetings, Gradebook produced an audio recording and took good notes. Here are some of the comments, numbered to pick up from this post. Again, the caveats: There is no response from the administration to any of this, and not all speakers gave their names.
97. Michael Hadley, former president of the transit workers union, warned against allowing the district to privatize the transportation department.
98. Tamara Hightower also spoke out against privatization. "I'm 40 years old and I don't want to go private," she said. "I'm only making $14.03 an hour and I've been driving buses for 19 years." She also said the drivers should go back to designing their own routes.
99. A religious activist spoke out against the secularization of public schools. "The other day a little girl sang grace over her dinner and they expelled her and fired the teacher," he said. "You're going to tell me this school board recognizes God almighty? I don't think so."
100. A driver suggested that routing and planning be returned to the area offices and that promotions be based on seniority. He also spoke of student discipline. "Schools need to adhere with the bus rules and regulations," he said. "Let's bring back some confidence in transportaiton. The general manager, whoever that might be, should meet with the drivers often." He also suggested, "we should try to get some of the former drivers back."
101. Trainer Corie Holmes spoke out against Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "Why is it so hard to hold the superintendent accountable?" he said. Specifically, he responded to her comment on a ParentLink message to transportation employees, that there are "forces" inside and outside the district that are seeking to disrupt the department. "How do you expect her to do a fair investigation when she's making statements ike this?" he asked.
102. Russ Patterson, who teaches exceptional student education (ESE) at King High School, said, "in the last three years we've lost two ESE specialists to promotions. We should leave school-level jobs filled before we build bureaucratic jobs for the district."
The problems in transportation are long-running, he said. "This issue did not come about overnight. Where has the school administration been when these problems were building up? I don't know." He also noted transportation spending is going up, not down. "Youre benefits aren't up, just the budget," he said.
103. Former supplier diversity manager Henry Ballard talked in general about secrecy in the district. "Why has this administration and superintendent allowed this?" he asked. "The truth is going to finally set this school district free. Some people are lying."
104. A driver said if he were preparing a church sermon, he would call it, "Driving with your hands tied." He talked of students cussing the drivers, who get no support when it's time to discipline them. Transportation employees are skapegoats, he said. "Ever since we had those two incidents, the finger is pointed at transportation," he said. "Us bus drivers got to stick together. You can have all those town hall meetings you want, but you know what goes on, on that bus."
105. A driver said he wonders what happened to all the money the district saved with its reorganization. The drivers didn't get it, he said. "I'm poor and I'm one step away from being homeless," he said. On the subject of discipline, he said, "We're in no control of the children. Kids have no respect for us."
106. A driver complained about the escrow system the district has to set aside money for their short-pay months. "I can save my own money," she said. And she's tired of hearing school administrators say, "You're just a bus driver."
107. ESE Driver Ken Collins said behavior referrals are handed in to the assistant principals at the schools, who are busy with other referrals. Typically they give the students in-school suspension, which accomplishes nothing on the bus. "That afternoon the student's going to get on the bus and do the same thing he's been doing," he said. "ISS doesn't help us." What's more, he said, "The AP says, 'I don't believe you.'"
108. Driver Cynthia Hunter has been in Hillsborough six years. She, too, spoke of student behavior. "It seems like whatever these children say, it's believed in the school," she said. "You have people up there that take us for granted. They look at us like we're nobody."
109. Driver and former union president Vicki Lowry said it's not practical to treat a bus referral like a school-based referral. "We need our own bus referrals," she said. She described a lot of things the drivers do on nonpaid time - random drug testing, mandatory reflex physicals, bus inspections. "It's pitiful that we have satelite garages that are totally unsafe for employees to work in," she said. "Disgusting."
110. A driver asked, "where's the lottery money?" She complained about he escrow, harassment and retaliation. In fact, she said, her boss retaliated after she spoke out at a school board meeting. And training is lacking for ESE. "You've got drivers coming out of class with no ESE training and putting them on ESE runs," she said.
111. A driver asked, "why is it that the schools can determine what the discipline is for the kids?" In his day, you didn't misbehave on a bus because the driver could put you off. "Now we've got kids on the bus saying, 'I we got that driver fired.'"
112. A driver said the buses that go to the newest drivers are "faded, not painted, old classic buses, 20 years old or more." One was hit by a Ford Escort, he said. The whole front fender crumbled and "the floor came all the way up." With buses so old and decrepit, he said, it's hard to get these newer drivers to stay on the job. "Now the older drivers are making two and three trips, which isn't safe, because the newer drivers quit."
113. Driver Ruby Shannon complained about employees who are made field inspectors and supervisors "overnight." She said they need to hire more attendants for the late afternoon runs. "These bus drivers need help. Kids are out of control ... We need better wages." And she had questions about the contract for a privately managed shuttle bus to take neighborhood kids to Middleton High School. That should have been a district job, she said. "Two hundred and fifty dollars a day? That's raises for our bus drivers. And we are professional bus drivers."
114. A driver had questions about spending. "The referrals are outdated," he said. "The wages are outdated."
115. Joe Robinson, an engineer and community activist, said, "Our transportation department needs new leadership." He said everybody can talk to the school board members, but "they've done heard this before. Tell them you want them to do something. This is a classic case of labor-management. Y'all labor here and labor always gets stepped on. Y'all is sheep being slaughtered." The secret is at the ballot, he said. "It takes fortitude. You need to organize and vote 'em out."
116. A driver talked about a supervisor who is difficult to work with. She had trouble with this supervisor when she returned to work after being treated for breast cancer. But when she sent an email to the school board members, it was referred to the administration, and a transportation supervisor answered her.
117. A supervisor said there are not enough spare buses.
118. Janice Owens, a driver for 26 years, said, "it hurts me. It hurts me very much. I have cried. I have been sad. The happiness is gone. We're treated like animals. I've had to stay in the bus garage all day without food. If I treated my animal like that, I would be penalized. I'm not an animal. I'm a human being."
119. A driver discussed an annual evaluation where she was reprimanded after having no warning or counseling all year long. The boss held her hand up and did not allow her to speak. The union didn't help, she said. "I think supervisors should be trained in how to do an evaluation."
120. A driver who moved here two years ago from Ohio said, "when I came to Hillsborough County I was shocked by the lack of training." One day smoke started coming out of her ESE bus, she said. She rushed the kids off the bus. She tried to call K-6 (dispatch) but there was no answer. So she called a supervisor. "I explained what was going on, and they said, 'you have to call K-6,'" she said. "I was freaking out."
121. A school media specialist told the group of drivers, "I'm so sorry you are going through this. But you inspire me. As for student behavior, I am appalled at some of what I am hearing. I cannot be an empowered teacher unless I have an empowered transportation system."
122. A driver said, "my main concern is the disrespect. I am not an animal. I am not illiterate and I am not uneducated, even though I have a high school diploma. The disrespect is just ridiculous."
123. Janet Dougherty, who is running for Hillsborough County Commission, said she wonders why board member Stacy White (who is her opponent in the primary) has not been coming to these meetings. She wonders why the district insists on using radios, which are probably more expensive than cell phones. "If your radios aren't working, the children aren't safe," she said.
124. Dianne Hart, president of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association, said her organization will soon start sending people to School Board meetings to speak on the employees' behalf. "Listing to you, I am horrified," she said.
125. An ESE driver said a couple of months ago they had to take a special class. She thinks all drivers should take the class, as often regular drivers take ESE kids.
126. Hightower repeated that she's against privatization.
127. A driver said principals need to get involved when there's a problem on the bus.
128. A driver said she can't figure out how Franklin saved the district so much money.
129. Shannon said schools should allow bus drivers to come into the building and use their printers for their checks. And, she added, on his last day with the district, she saw Franklin drive off in a Mercedes.