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]