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Bus employees speak out in Hillsborough



Three town hall meetings have been held so far in Hillsborough County to address transportation issues in the public schools.

School Board member Susan Valdes hosted the first one in Town 'N Country. Guests could talk about transportation or any other issues that concerned them. April Griffin hosted the second one in Valrico, which was focused more specifically on transportation. Griffin and Candy Olson co-moderated the third meeting in Apollo Beach, with Cindy Stuart attending the second and third. A fourth is planned April 28 at the Beulah Baptist Church in West Tampa.

So what’s being said?

A lot. Some of it directly concerns student safety. Much of it is about work conditions and overall morale. To get a global view of the employees' concerns, Gradebook recorded all three sessions. What follows is a summary of what was said.

A few caveats: Some of the speakers did not give their names. Some did not speak at all, but wrote their concerns on paper. The written remarks are not included in this (warning, very long) report.

And keep in mind that all of this is completely one-sided, with no response from the administration. A more balanced report will come later, when Superintendent MaryEllen Elia releases a comprehensive action plan for the transportation department, based on multiple investigations that are now under way.

What follows, essentially, is what you would hear if you attended these public meetings.

March 17, Town ‘N Country

1. A driver described the way employees are treated if they call in sick. He said they are given additional shifts the following day, even if it means having students wait to be picked up while other drivers sit idle. He says he has spoken with the union to no avail.
2. Former Office of Supplier Diversity manager Henry Ballard spoke at length about the culture in the district, which he said is rife with nepotism, favoritism and bullying. He's also concerned that so many students exit high school without diplomas.
3. Driver Calvin Upshaw described conflicts he had with management, which he described as "bullying" and "harassment." He said he was on career observation for various allegations. "Half of it wasn't even true," he said.
4. A driver with 20 years experience in Hillsborough and 10 before that in Atlanta said she applied for general manager John Franklin's job but lost out to him. She said she has been pulled off her bus seven times to work in the office. She said drivers with little experience are being promoted to supervisory jobs. The work is spread unevenly. And it's hard to find a mechanic after 7 p.m.
5. Shawn Livingston, former assistant principal of Rodgers Middle School, described his career there, which ended after the accidental drowning of ESE student Jennifer Caballero. Livingston said he was made a "scapegoat," and that district officials did not respond when he reported health and safety issues at the Riverview campus. He said students were sometimes on the bus for two hours because of poor scheduling. "We've got three or four kids on a seat, seatbelts not working," he said.

6. Trainer John Saffold, one of the four whistleblowers whose Jan. 29 memo started these conversations and inquiries, said the problems began when they centralized routing instead of leaving it to the drivers and managers in their area offices.
7. A driver complained about the EDULOG routing system that "takes you all around the world."

8. Leticia Ferlita, who has worked for the media center and student nutrition, complained about bullying at Westchase Elementary School. She had a door slammed on her hand and was locked in a freezer, she said. "What I've been through, it's not fair."

9. A driver urged the employees to vote in the union elections.

10. Driver Bonnie Dukes, who has a lawsuit pending against the district, said there is a great deal of waste in the transportation department. Just that morning, she said, a manager asked her to drive her bus from Lutz to Lockhart Elementary in east Tampa to take a driver to the transportation office. "I drive a 77-passenger bus," she said. 

11. Pastor Pedro Gonzalez of the Casa del Alfarero church that hosted the meeting spoke about what his wife went through to become a teacher. However, he said, she now is dissatisfied with the system.

12. Bus mechanic Paul Vilchez spoke about his disputes with the district, most recently over whether he should be required to take a physical examination.

13. Kathy James, a mother of an eighth grader, she said, "we need to make sure that guidance counselors stick around." She had concerns about students who are given high school-level math in middle school, and wind up with C's on their records. "Parents have no input and that's not right," she said. She would like parent forms reworded to say "Parent 1 and Parent 2" instead of mother and father." And schools should be able to select their own anti-bullying programs.

14. A student spoke about her brother's unsuccessful experience in an honors class.
March 31, Valrico:

15. Corie Holmes, one of the four whistleblowers, said, “We transport children to school. If our equipment is not up to date and proper, we’re crap-shooting.” He asked why the district has not bought new buses in a timely manner. “Where’s the money?” And he said fellow trainer Twyla Tillman (and whistleblower) is sometimes reduced to tears by her frustration. “We cannot train people on ESE buses in four hours, folks, we can’t do it,” he said.

16. A driver said she was stranded from 5:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. because of a breakdown. “We need help, and I did not get paid for it,” she said.

17. A driver said she’s been told to transport children even when the wheelchairs and harnesses are faulty. Her office tells her not to worry, she said.

18. A driver said there is no way the mechanics on staff can do the work that is needed on the buses. She described being stranded in her broken bus and suggested the mechanics be placed on double shifts.

19. Driver Otella Lowe said new drivers need to be trained more thoroughly to care for medically needy children. “We deal with tracheotomy tubes, colostomy bags, oxygen tanks,” she said. “Their lives are in our  hands.” Student safety and the district’s reputation are endangered, she said. “Right now we don’t have mechanics to go out there and help with these buses,” she said. “We don’t have drivers out there to drive these buses. We don’t have enough buses to transport these kids. Kids should not have to ride on a bus two to three hours in order to get home because the bus has a double trip.”

20. Driver Ronald Montgomery said the computer routing system sent him on a dead end and got him into an accident. Drivers should be allowed to write their own routes, he said.

21. A secretary who the others had been accused of coming to the meeting as a spy said she was not spying, but rather was concerned about the problems being discussed.

22. Tillman, the trainer, quizzed the group on what they knew about their students’ medical conditions. The problem, she said, is that the district got rid of locally based exceptional student education (ESE) route coordinators in 2006.

23. Driver Wayne Chattin said the Office of Professional Standards should operate independently of the administration. They don't, he said, and that compromises their investigations. "They're looking at your tapes and not telling you," he said.

24. Driver Walter Seward said he drove a route at Monroe Middle School where “the kids were out of control. I asked for an attendant for months.” He also said the drivers should write their own routes, and complained that “there are tons of buses that are not being ridden.”

25. Driver Patsy Blakeman said, “When something's running good, good, good, don’t change it,” agreeing that the 2007 reorganization was bad for the department.

26. A driver complained that the School Board meets when bus drivers can’t be there.

27. A driver with 20 years experience said, “For the last seven years I have dreaded, dreaded getting out of my bed to walk to my bus because it’s bad.” She described one incident when she was asked to drive a student with a wheelchair that was losing its tires. When she complained, she was told the administration would set up a meeting. At that meeting, they instructed her and her attendant in how to fasten the wheelchair. “That’s not an issue,” she said. “I wound up transporting that chair all year long.” She also described a driver who spent a week transporting a medically fragile "red alert" student without knowing it.
28. A retired district employee said many of these issues have been around for years. "Someone needs to look at nepotism," he said.

29. A driver said the district has gotten better at identifying "red alert" students but sometimes they have trouble with parents. After questioning by Griffin, the drivers said that if children are absent on picture day, their photos are not included in the red alert file.

30. Longtime driver Debra Wilson said, "I have two years left and I can't wait." One issue that has drivers on edge is the rule that they can be disciplined if a kindergarten student gets off the bus without an adult to meet him. "Us as a bus driver that tranports children, we have enough common sense and responsibility to drive a school bus, to get these kids home," she said. "Surely we have enough common sense to get these kindergarteners where they belong." But "if someone is covering that run, they don't know these kids. They don't know who's who. And that's when it happens."

31. A driver with 22 years experience said she's been locked out of bathrooms. General director John Franklin and fleet manager James Kennett did not address the problem, she said. They also had trouble getting lights on in their garage, she said. In summer, when the grass is high and it's muddy, she said, grass and bugs get into the buses. The Plant City garage lost its break room, she said. Drivers have no place to go to wait for their buses.

32. A driver said some of the supervisors don't know what's going on. She said she was told if she didn't stop complaining, she would lose her overtime.

33, 34. Two drivers talked of the unpaid hours they spend cleaning their buses, inspecting and refueling, driving to Tampa for physical examinations and other responsibilities. 

35. Driver Jackie McColister complains about the routing system. Changes might have to be made four, five or six times, she said. "Routing and planning is the lifeblood of what we do, where we take our buses," she said. "We as drivers don't need to go through a middle person. We need our routers and planners back in the office."

36. Driver Ruby Shannon said drivers wait for hours without being able to eat, between driving their runs and waiting for repairs. "That needs to stop," she said. She also said the office staff is inadequate. Bus drivers are being asked to work as field inspectors, and staff is being moved around from one area of the district to another. Parking at the elementary schools is also a problem, she said, and she has four "red alert" students on her bus.

37. Driver Mike Angel said the GPS and radio systems are unreliable. Once, when a bus was broken down, the operator told the driver, "we show your bus is still moving." He drove ESE for six years with no hands-on training, he said. He said he was told he could take a child in a wheelchair out the back door. "That was ridiculous," he said. "And I swear I was told that right there at the East Bay garage. The training does not exist." He described wheelchair straps that were "rotting." He said there are too many bus brands, which makes it difficult to handle repairs. Finally, he said the ESE students bit, hit and scratched his attendant, who did not have insurance benefits. 

38. Driver Stephanie Macneel said her supervisors have not been trained and the union hasn't been effective. "Anything that supervisor wants to do, she can do," she said. "We have to take back our union because we are never going to be strong until we do." 

39. Lowe spoke of "threats, bullying and intimidation."

40. Driver Kelmie Bigelow said in Lee County, where she used to work, they trained for 3 1/2 weeks. There was a week dedicated to ESE training. "And if you didn't get it, you don't get put on ESE." The time clocks they use on the buses don't work, she said. A bus shouldn't be on the road more than 15 years, and some in Hillsborough are 17 and 20 years old, she said. The radios are outdated, she said, and drivers are told they cannot have cell phones.

41. A driver said the union is failing them -- and she's running for president.

42. A driver said she needed an attendent, could not get one and was told that she'd be transferred to another area if she complained.

[At this point Stuart polled the group, who she estimated at 88 drivers. She asked how many could depend on the radio. None of them could. Then Valdes asked how many had working cell phones. Nearly all raised their hands.]

43. A driver said she was in a situation in east Hillsborough where she was lost. Her phone wasn't working, they couldn't find her on GPS and if it had not been for another driver who passed by, she didn't know what she would have done.

44. A driver said somebody needs to look at the radio room. She estimates there are only two people there at times.

45. An ESE teacher thanked the bus drivers and said she is also an ESE parent. In the past two weeks, she said, she has been called twice to pick her up because the bus broke down. She's troubled to hear there are no reliable radios on the bus. There's no excuse, she said. The ESE bus loop at Eisenhower Middle School, where she works, is not safe because teachers have to walk the children in the road, sometimes in the dirt, sometimes in the rain. She'd like to see a new bus ramp for ESE students.

46. A driver complained about the kindergarten policy. The only person held responsible is the driver, not the parent, she said. And it's a confusing policy.

47. A driver who had worked previously in Georgia echoed the previous speaker's statement about the kindergarten policy. He tried to take an ESE child back to Bloomingdale High School after there was no parent to meet her. She was locked out of her house. But when he got to Bloomingdale, the school was locked up.

48. A driver said whenever drivers make mistakes, they are punished with "sweep runs," which makes the situation worse because they are now driving students they don't know in areas that are unfamiliar.

49. Driver said the management is no longer receptive to employees when they have issues with their children, parents, etc. Supervisors used to have phone numbers they could call in case of an accident or emergency. That's no longer the case, she said. Nowadays there is no one at the school to notify parents.

50. ESE bus driver Dina Salem complained about a lack of communication. "I'm a former Marine and I have never seen anything like this," she said. "I have not driven my assigned bus more than probably a month in this whole year because it was in and out, in and out, and it is now completely down. I've driven probably all the buses in the fleet."

51. An ESE driver said she had a girl go into a seizure and her radio wasn't working. When she finally got an operator on the phone, the operator screamed at her. The same student later went in a rampage and hit her in the eye with a shoe. Much of it was preventable, she said, because there was so much indecision.

52. A driver said the video did not function on her bus, twice, when she had problems.

53. A driver goes on a lot of out-of-county field trips and there is no mechanic she can depend on. Once she was in Manatee County, her phone was dead, GPS couldn't find her and she was lost. Her concern is that during weekend field trips, they have no mechanics.

54. A driver said there has been a lot of publicity about ESE, but regular drivers have problems too. He's also tired of being told "take those kids home" when he calls to report behavior problems on the bus.

55. A clerk with 20 years in the district said the district needs new buses. She doesn't know why the district would consider buying Bluebird buses when they have no parts for them. After 30 years her pay has increased only $3 an hour.

56. An employee said a child pulled his tracheotomy tube out while he was on the bus. She was not trained in how to put the tube back in. She got training afterwards. She said she has been spit on, kicked, bit, "messed on." Some of the attendants have no idea how to handle a medical emergency. She described one child with heart problems and brittle bones. Had she done CPR, she said, she would have killed him. There has to be better training for the aides on the buses, she said.

57. Corie Holmes called the system "the most dysfunctional system I have seen in my entire life."

58. A driver said she is concerned about unsafe conditions when it rains and her windows fog up. She's told to take the bus to maintenance and say she has a problem with condensation. The problem, she said, is that the windows do not defrost, and there is mold in the bus too.

59. A driver said there are some simple remedies, such as moving a stationary bus at the repair shop so drivers do not have to walk so far.

60. Trainer/whistleblower John Saffold talked about the drivers who are stranded while they wait for spares or repairs. In the old days, the tow truck would bring a spare bus for the driver. "But we don't do anything for convenience any more," he said.

60. A driver said he wants to see the attendants get permanent jobs. He's on the road 11 hours a day including his commute, he said.

61. A driver said that sometimes you get unruly children who are a distraction. The driver is told, "take them home and write a referral." The same thing happens again and again until eventually, the driver is pulled off the bus. Once a bus went through eight drivers, he said. He feels this endangers the other students who are behaving, as well as everybody else on the road.

62. A driver said she was bullied. She was a "sweep driver" and when she returned to school, she learned that someone was angry at her and took her route for spite.

63. A driver at McLane Middle School said she has had to call the police many times this year. She said she was headed to court as a witness in a case concerning a student. Four times the student was returned to the bus even after she had been suspended from school, she said. The driver said she finally pressed charges when the student hit her.

64. A driver said she was sitting still on a bus ramp when a driver hit her. Both buses were fully loaded. When a field inspector arrived, she was ordered to take a drug test. She refused and she was right, she said. But the supervisor was angry at her. The driver also complained about an assistant principal who is not cooperative when she tries to verify which kindergarten students are on her bus.
65. Richard "Dewayne" Bethune, a bus repair supervisor, said, "we work for a bunch of idiots." He said the repair shop is completely dysfunctional, that it's a dumping ground for employees who failed elsewhere. He fears there will be a bad accident because of the shoddy work. In fact, he said, there was an accident with an injury on Feb. 25. That bus had been inspected three times, but the brakes failed. "There's no pride, there's no discipline to start with, you can't discipline any of the mechancis," he said. "They have no pride in their work. How many buses leave there and don't even make it down [Highway] 301, then have to turn back?"     

66. A driver said she doesn't understand why they don't have a bus they use to train the mechanics.
April 14, Apollo Beach:

67. A bus driver described a problem he had on the job involving medical treatment for his blood sugar.
68. Corie Holmes told Olson, “we have not been respected.” He took issue with Olson’s prior statement that the meetings were “a political stunt” by Griffin. Griffin, in turn, defended Olson. “Ms. Olson is not running for public office,” she said. “So the fact that she is here speaks volumes."

69. Driver Lisa Nelson accused general manager John Franklin and fleet manager James Kennett of trying to divide the employees against each other. “I can remember a time when we were family,” she said. As for the condition of the buses, she said, “we all know the buses are junk.” But don’t blame the mechanics, she added, as morale in their shop is as bad as it is on the road.

70. A driver with asthma described a problem she had when students from Eisenhower Middle School insisted on spraying strong cologne on the bus. The administration did not back her up and she could have been fired, she said.

71. The parent of a special-needs child with hearing loss complained that the district changed her child’s bus stop to a place with “no visibility and high traffic volume.” Administrators have not been responsive to her complaints, she said.

72. A bus attendant described a “bad day” in which the students were “acting out, kicking and punching. They tell you you have to transport them. I feel that that’s not safe.” She said the drivers have to take the kids, whether they are misbehaving or whether the equipment – wheelchairs and vests – is inadequate. “If the brakes don’t work or anything ike that, they’re telling us we have to transport them.” She said. “It’s unsafe for us and it’s unsafe for the children.”

73. Delores Hughes, a driver for 24 years with an ESE route, said she’s concerned about an autistic child on her bus.
“I’m told that I have to pick him up at a corner that’s very dangerous,” she said. “I need to pick him up at his house.” She once saw him run away from his mother, who was carrying an infant. “This isn’t right. This is not safe for our children. I just don’t want it to come down to a child getting hurt or killed to change this”

74. A magnet driver talked of the need for more mechanics who can respond when the buses break down. One day, when her bus was broken, she called dispatch, then waited two hours for a mechanic to arrive. He told her the bus needed to be towed. “So I wait another 30, 40 minutes,” she said. The two truck couldn’t handle the bus. She would up waiting from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and had trouble getting back to her home in Manatee County.

“Two months ago, my route was snatched from me,” she said. She had trained her students on the previous route how to behave. “I have issues every day with students who want to try me,” she said.

75. A driver said the attendants are not paid well enough, and he finds it insulting that they are called “riders.” “What do they make? Eight dollars an hour,” he said. “They get more than that at McDonald’s and they get a discount on their food.”

76. A driver said she had a middle school route for three years. “I trained the kids,” she said. “It took a long time. It was a rowdy group of kids.” The bus was too small, she said. But because she had only three years seniority, she couldn’t get a bigger bus. Instead, the district re-assigned her route to another driver who had more seniority, and a bigger bus. They gave her a new route. “Kids are very, very out of control.” She said, “which is very unsafe for me driving because I’m having to look in the mirror more often than on the road or I have to pull over. Kids are making graffiti on the seats. They’re throwing confetti all over the floor, hitting me in the head with paper and I was told specifically that I am not allowed to have the kids stay on the bus to clean it up. That's my responsibility to clean the bus, write referrals. But I don’t even know these kids, their names.”
77. Driver Ken Collins said he was off one day for a medical appointment. They gave him a substitute driver and as it turned out, his attendant was off that week too. The substitute attendant, despite 10 years on the job, thought she really was a “rider” on the bus. “She rode with me,” he said. “She said, 'tell me when you want me to get off the bus.’” The day she was paired up with the substitute driver was a disaster, he said, with the bus arriving late and parents becoming frantic.

78. A driver said he wished he could talk to the mechanics about problems on the bus. He’s not allowed to, he said. He’s been told the mechanics wanted to buy a $150 manual but were told it was too expensive.

79. A driver commended the principal of Sessums Elementary School for sharing the state’s A-plus money with the drivers. “We should get that money,” she said. Olson advised the crowd that the state does not allow districts to dictate how the schools spend their money.

80. A driver said ESE runs should only go to ESE drivers.

81. A driver said that after a bus caught on fire in front of Spoto High School, that driver should have received a plaque for her heroism in getting the kids off safely.

82. Driver Debra Gibson said the computer routing system doesn’t work. “Y’all spent a lot of money for nothing,” she said.

83. A driver said her route was taken from her, leaving her with an over-crowded bus. When she complained, nothing was done. So she went over her supervisor's head, she said, and the supervisor got angry and her evaluation suffered.

84. A supervisor is concerned that there are not enough spare buses. She sees buses sitting, unused, in the maintenance compound. She’s told they’re needed for training, and field trips. But, she pointed out, “there’s no trips at 6 o’clock in the morning.”

85. A driver who traded routes with one of the previous speakers said the schools don’t discipline kids. They cuss her own and call her names, she said. And she had to buy bug spray with her own money because her bus had roaches, which she blamed on the students.

86. A driver said she doesn’t trust the supervisors who come to the scene when she has an accident.

87. A driver wishes the district would return to some of the routines it used before the reorganization of 2007. It was better for drivers to take care of their own routes and work with staff in the office, she said. The GPS system is unreliable. She’s also been told that if she touches a child – even to stop him from getting off at the wrong stop – she can be investigated by the Department of Children and Families.

88. A driver complained that with the new procedures for special-needs students, they have to drive to the office for paperwork and they are not paid for these trips. She could not get an ESE route during the school year, but they gave her one in the summer. And she said the supervisors "give you grief" if you call in sick.

89. A "sweep driver" urged the others to keep up with their paperwork. She’s seen drivers assigned to seven buses in three days. She knows of two drivers who were assigned the same bus.

90. A driver said the spare buses are moldy and dirty. She said she was on seven buses in one week.

91. A driver said Areas 5 and 8 are so far apart, each should have its own office.

92. A driver complained that the dispatch operators are sometimes rude when she calls.

93. ESE advocate Richard Hancock advised everybody to document all of their concerns. "I can assure you that if you are standing in front of the judge and you can't prove what you're saying, you're going to have a rough way to go," he said.

94. Olson told the group that the state gives the district $35-million for transportation, and the district spends about the same amount beyond that. The district has tried to save money on transportation in recent years, she said, acknowledging they should have moved more quickly to buy buses. "We're going to have to figure out something," she said, suggesting that perhaps, as a "quick fix," the district hire people to clean the buses. "I think people have finally heard you. I'm sorry it's taken so long," she said.

95. Saffold said he's been telling Franklin for years that route coordinators need to be in the area offices. But he doesn't see that happening.

96. A supervisor said field inspectors have not been trained to respond at accidents. And she does not think non-ESE drivers should take ESE routes during the summer, and she'd like to see them bring back route coordinators for ESE.

[Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2014 7:00pm]


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