Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school bus drivers describe faulty equipment, lack of support

TAMPA — Irene Davis has driven school buses for Hillsborough County for almost 20 years. But these days she doubts the district's commitment to safety for special-needs students.

Drivers do not get enough training in how to transport children with medical needs, she said. Drivers with even less training are asked to fill in for those who normally transport exceptional student education, or ESE, students.

And buses sometimes lack the equipment to secure wheelchairs.

"They should not allow ESE buses to be on the road without the proper equipment," Davis said Monday during a focus group meeting at Spoto High School. "ESE has basically fell through the cracks."

The meeting, which attracted about 40 drivers, was the first of eight planned this month. The drivers' comments were made anonymously, and the Tampa Bay Times is reporting the statements of only those who agreed later in the day to be named and quoted.

The sessions are motivated in part by allegations from four transportation trainers for the district who made their concerns public last month in a memo to School Board members. The trainers say not enough has been done to protect medically fragile students — and that, when mistakes are made, employees are told not to document them.

Business Process Improvement (BPI), a district department that is running the focus group sessions, will compile a report that summarizes drivers' concerns. Separately, the district is investigating some of the issues in the four trainers' memo.

BPI manager William Cochran said he was encouraged by Monday's meeting with the drivers. "What we want is their input, so we can have the best possible transportation system," he said.

He encouraged drivers to speak honestly, without fear of retaliation. "We're not going to single anybody out," he said. "We want to fix the problem, and not fix blame."

The drivers at Spoto talked of radios that don't work and office staff who are not always responsive when they report problems on their buses.

Driver Janie Korte said the department has repeatedly failed to follow through on efforts to improve the system. "We're out with stuff that doesn't work, and nobody's accountable" she said.

She said she is close to retirement and speaking out with hopes that things will improve for the newer drivers. "I've been 25 years in the system and the complaints don't ever change," she said.

Monday's session also brought forth stories of supervisors who didn't back drivers when students misbehaved or when parents stepped onto the buses to confront them.

David Wattnem described a rainy afternoon when he tried to help a fellow driver whose bus was stuck in the mud after pulling over because of misbehaving students. He described the scene as "pandemonium."

A dispatch operator kept stalling when Wattnem asked for police assistance. At one point parents arrived, opened the back door and let the kids out in traffic. "The police finally showed up, but it took way too long," Wattnem said.

Some of the drivers' concerns were monetary. They discussed an escrow system that protects them from short pay weeks, but can make it hard to earn overtime pay. Drivers earn an average of $17,023 a year, according to payroll records. Some have been on the job more than 30 years.

Drivers also raised concerns that ESE bus attendants — who earn an average of $9,457 a year — sometimes wait years for benefits.

Some complained about locked restrooms and how long it takes to have buses repaired.

"The biggest issue here is pay and the amount of hours. They haven't ordered buses in six years," said driver Kelmie Bigelow. "There is no reason the county can't get it together."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

Comments
First step for Hillsborough schools facing biggest challenges: Hire more teachers

First step for Hillsborough schools facing biggest challenges: Hire more teachers

TAMPA — As chief of diversity for the Hillsborough County School District, Minerva Spanner-Morrow tries to keep her expectations realistic."We want the best of the best and I know that’s very difficult," she told principals last week as they prepared...
Published: 06/23/18
Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

BROOKSVILLE — With dust still settling from the Hernando County School Board’s close vote to fire Superintendent Lori Romano — and days before her time as head of the district runs out — school officials and community members seem to be already movin...
Published: 06/20/18
Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

BROOKSVILLE — As schools and districts across the state await their 2018 grades from the Florida Department of Education, the standardized test scores that factor into those ratings and were dropped last week show slight gains in Hernando County.The ...
Published: 06/20/18
Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

An early analysis of the Pasco County School District’s 2018-2019 budget projects a deficit of more than a million dollars, with more than half of that coming from a shortfall in funding new school safety requirements.Costs to hire and train 53 new s...
Published: 06/20/18
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG — Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USF’s latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time it’s done.For starters, it...
Published: 06/20/18
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Published: 06/20/18

Hillsborough school district will pursue two kinds of local taxes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials took an important step Tuesday toward asking the voters to pay higher taxes for schools that, they say, are not getting enough money from the state.The board voted 5-0 to submit a tax referendum r...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/20/18
STEM camp beats the summer doldrums for some Pasco students

STEM camp beats the summer doldrums for some Pasco students

DADE CITY —Just a few weeks into summer vacation, Pasco Middle School student Jade Neal, 14, was back at school, delving into a challenging STEM activity on force in motion, as the theme to Mission Impossible played in the background.The assignment? ...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/21/18
Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Editor’s note: Ethan Hooper wrote today’s column to give Ernest Hooper Father’s Day off.In May, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education, and I recently secured a job as a first-grade teacher with Orang...
Published: 06/18/18
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18