TAMPA — Dana Campbell had to drive a child in a wheelchair with wheels coming off the frame. Otella Lowe was stranded and no one could find her on the school district's global positioning system.
Twila Tillman asked a group of bus drivers who met Monday night in Valrico if they had been trained to care for their medically fragile students. "No," they said in unison.
About 80 drivers gathered for the second of two town hall meetings organized by Hillsborough County School Board members about school transportation, particularly involving special-needs children. They described faulty equipment, inadequate training and management decisions they say are misguided.
"I have two years left, and I can't wait," said driver Debra Wilson, who joined the district in 1982 and is preparing to retire.
Ever since four trainers in exceptional student education (ESE) transportation put their complaints in writing, drivers have been speaking out at board meetings and forums hosted by a contingent of the board that is increasingly challenging the administration.
Member Susan Valdes, who organized the first gathering on March 17, and Cindy Stuart, who has asked questions mostly behind the scenes, stood with April Griffin, who organized the Valrico meeting.
"I want our children to be safe," said Griffin, who has announced she is running for re-election this year but has not yet filed. "And I want you to have job security. And we have to look out for the taxpayers' dollars, too."
The drivers gathered on the evening before a meeting in which School Board members are expected to approve an $800,000 court settlement with the Herrera family, whose 7-year-old daughter Isabella died in 2012 after suffering respiratory failure on a bus.
The district's Business Process Improvement department is conducting its own focus groups of transportation employees. Separately, a consultant is assessing the department as it prepares to replace some of its buses.
But Griffin has made it clear she doesn't trust superintendent MaryEllen Elia's administration, which is compiling its research into a series of reports.
"I'm done," she said. "I'm tired of Powerpoint after Powerpoint."
Monday's remarks, which were not rebutted by anyone from Elia's staff, touched on workplace issues, including locked rest rooms and retaliation; and logistical problems such as radios that don't work and equipment that's inadequate for disabled children.
"I've been driving ESE for six years," said Mike Angel. "I've received no hands-on training. The straps are rotting that you actually tie the wheelchairs down with."
His attendant, meanwhile, works without medical benefits, he said. "She's been bit, scratched, hit and kicked."
Some longtime drivers said the system suffered after a reorganization in 2008 that centralized some operations to save money. As a result, they said, trainers and supervisors for the ESE drivers were no longer based in area offices near the drivers.
There were complaints about a new computerized routing system. Drivers said they know how to get around, but the routers sometimes take them on roads that don't exist.
Driver Gigi Aad said she was hit in the face during an incident that began when a child had a seizure. Try as she might, she said, she could not get assistance from dispatch, known as K-6. "I kept saying, 'K-6, K-6, K-6. I have a child who's had a seizure.' "
Drivers said there are not enough dispatch operators and mechanics. A few said they fear they'll be left holding the bag if something goes wrong.
"If I get fired tomorrow, I get $320 a month for 20 years of hard work," said bus attendant Peggy Raiton.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]