Wednesday, April 25, 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
SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

LAND O’LAKES — A school resource officer at Sunlake High School is under investigation after he tried to take a female student into custody on Tuesday, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.School officials asked the SRO remove the student f...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

The family of the 18-year-old Sarasota high school student under fire for the racist prom proposal he sent out on social media this weekend has publicly apologized for their son’s actions.They also said that as a result of his actions, he will not at...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Battle continues over west Pasco school rezoning

Jim Stanley does not give up without a fight.The west Pasco County parent who brought down the school district’s 2017 attendance zone revisions, leading the administration to change its procedures along the way, has filed a new challenge to the syst...
Published: 04/24/18
Crews Lake eighth-grader already capable musician

Crews Lake eighth-grader already capable musician

SPRING HILL — Rose Dodd, 2 months old, couldn’t yet grasp a rattle, but there she was years ago at hand-bell choir practice at Keystone United Methodist Church in Odessa.Rose, 14, a Crews Lakes Middle School eighth-grader, is back at hand-bell practi...
Published: 04/24/18
Hillsborough: No way we can afford teacher raises this year

Hillsborough: No way we can afford teacher raises this year

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is in bad financial shape and its reputation for sound management is perhaps undeserved, the district’s own fiscal team testified Monday in a hearing concerning teacher salaries.The district "made finan...
Published: 04/23/18

School news for April 27

School Calendar• May 17-20: High school graduations• May 25: Last day of school for studentsBriefs• School Safety Town Hall Meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 2 at River Ridge Middle/High, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey and 6 to 8 p....
Published: 04/23/18
A Florida school shooting suspect charged with terrorism says ‘sorry’ to injured student

A Florida school shooting suspect charged with terrorism says ‘sorry’ to injured student

The young man in a white jail jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled, looked past the throng of reporters pointing microphones toward his face, barely opening his mouth as he answered questions."I shot through the door," he said, looking at a female repor...
Published: 04/21/18
After months, no action on Hillsborough’s substitute teacher problem

After months, no action on Hillsborough’s substitute teacher problem

TAMPA — Confronted in late 2017 with reports of misconduct by substitute teachers hired through a contractor, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said he would ask tough questions and demand answers. He had his lawyer, Jeff Gibson, ...
Published: 04/21/18
Tampa Bay students voice opinions on gun laws during school walkouts

Tampa Bay students voice opinions on gun laws during school walkouts

Nicole Leary and Taylor Redington stood outside St. Petersburg High School on Friday morning with parents and protesters who had gathered with bullhorns and signs. In a few minutes they would lead about 70 students on a walk to City Hall, joining oth...
Published: 04/20/18
Official: Shotgun in guitar case was used in school shooting

Official: Shotgun in guitar case was used in school shooting

FORT LAUDERDALE — A gunman who carried a shotgun in a guitar case opened fire Friday in a Florida high school, wounding one student before he was arrested on a day planned for a national classroom walkout to protest gun violence, authorities said. It...
Published: 04/20/18