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Pasco school bus drivers file grievance over beverage ban behind the wheel

LAND O'LAKES — After three hours on the road, Pasco County school bus driver John Kilousky was hot.

The temperature on his bus, even with the windows open and no kids aboard, was 105 degrees Friday. A small oscillating fan was pointed at his seat.

"It's just blowing hot air," said Kilousky, who wore shorts, a T-shirt and a cap.

No matter how heated he might get, though, the 10-year bus driver is not permitted to take even a sip of water while in the driver's seat. New rules set forth in the district's transportation operators handbook forbid it.

And that's got most drivers steamed.

"The common sense is, you're not supposed to be using your phone. You're not supposed to text," Kilousky said. "You're not supposed to drink now? But at the same time, you're supposed to use their radio when they call you."

He suggested the district had gone too far. And he was not alone.

On Friday, 409 of the district's 535 transportation employees filed a grievance over the new policy that greeted them as they returned to work this fall.

The rules state that a driver must lock down the bus in a safe location and leave the operator's compartment in order to have something to drink. That language was added to the handbook over the summer.

District officials said the change aimed to clarify safety procedures so that drivers would not eat or drink while their buses are in motion. Many drivers carry oversized bottles and cups that could obscure their view if they drank while driving.

The rules already had said that drivers should drink or eat only while not operating their buses.

"The term locked down in this sense refers to having the bus be inoperable (with the brake on)," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said in an e-mail to the Times. "The previous language in the manual stated that bus drivers could not drink water while operating the vehicle. This section was added to provide greater clarity regarding what the term 'not operating the vehicle' meant."

The United School Employees of Pasco members argue that the district went overboard with the additional language, which the union calls a "policy of dehydration."

"It's micromanaging," union president Lynne Webb said. "It's taking away employees' ability to use common sense or judgment. … It shows a complete lack of respect and dignity for drivers as professionals."

Many bus drivers did not want to be named in a newspaper article about the issue. But they did discuss how buses get warmer with children on them, and they said they often have little time for breaks to drink during their morning and afternoon runs, which are about four to five hours each.

No one disputed the notion that a driver should not drink while a bus is moving.

"My policy rule is no eating or drinking on the bus," Kilousky said. "I will not do that while children are on the bus."

But they wondered what was wrong with having a swig of water while they were stopped at a red light or while they were parked but still in the operator's compartment.

Webb said the drivers are calling for the elimination of the new restriction. The union would be willing to work out more reasonable rules, if asked, she added.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco school bus drivers file grievance over beverage ban behind the wheel 09/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 9:00pm]
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