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Bus drivers not in "sick out,' district says

Pinellas County school officials denied Tuesday that bus drivers were staging a "sick out" this week to protest the retirement of the head of transportation.

Forty-three of the district's approximately 585 bus drivers were not at work Tuesday. On Monday, 46 did not appear for work, igniting rumors of a bus driver "sick out" or a strike over the retirement of Jim Gray. His retirement, which becomes effective Nov. 8, was accepted by the School Board at its meeting Tuesday.

Gray, 51, submitted his retirement this month after he was placed on paid leave Oct. 11 during an investigation of his department. The investigation is expected to continue until next week. Gray, who has worked for the district 14 years and earns $77,092, gave no reason for his retirement. He could not be reached for comment.

"There are some very interesting rumors going around that are totally unfounded as far as we can tell," said Marilyn Brown, school district spokeswoman. "I don't know where this has come from."

Brown said the School Employees Union, IBFO Local 1221, which represents the drivers, has indicated there is no strike or "sick out." Robert Stephen, union president, could not be reached for comment and did not return telephone calls.

Tom Dillen, assistant superintendent for Institutional Services, said the number of drivers absent Monday and Tuesday was well within district expectations. Up to 10 percent, or about 58 drivers, are expected to be absent on any given day, he said.

Another rumor had 75 drivers out sick Monday.

Brown said only 30 drivers called in ill. One didn't call in, she said, and 15 were expected to be absent for such reasons as personal leave.

That meant those 46 routes did not have regular drivers. But there were an additional 30 routes that did not have regular drivers, said Susan Collins, acting transportation director, because not enough people have been hired and trained to fill them. That is because of attrition and failure of some drivers to report to work after the summer vacation.

"We have a training class going right now and will start more," Collins said. "We are trying to get more people hired and trained as quickly as possible to alleviate the problem."

Usually, Brown said, the district's 42 relief drivers cover those 30 open routes. If drivers are out, then those working have to double up.

"When you double up, there is a chance you're going to be late," she said. "But the fact that there were some late today is unfortunately not unusual."

But Tuesday, Brown said, "We haven't had any more calls than usual" from parents about late buses.

Late buses and a serious shortage of drivers are chronic problems, she said.

"This is not a new concern," Brown said. "That is one reason we are looking at the transportation department."

It was more than lateness and a shortage of drivers that triggered the investigation.

Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley asked for the investigation after several bus accidents this year. In one, a bus driver was found to be ineligible to stay behind the wheel. At the time, Gray admitted it was the fault of his office and blamed it on a paperwork error. Eight elementary pupils suffered minor injuries in that accident.

On Tuesday, Jim Barker, head of the district's Office of Professional Standards, said investigators have discovered "some things of concern" in the transportation department. He refused to comment further on any findings, other than to say none involves criminal wrongdoing.

Hinesley said it is too early to know if the investigation will result in an overhaul of the transportation department, although other modifications are likely.

"There's definitely going to be some changes in procedure," Hinesley said.

A conclusion to the investigation and a possible restructuring of the transportation department cannot come too fast for a mother whose children were injured in one of the accidents.

"Something's got to change here, not only with the buses, but with communication with the parents," said Terri Strand of Pinellas Park.

Strand said she found out about the accident when she saw it on television, about two hours after it happened.

"I flipped out," she said. "I'm thinking my kids are in school, and they're not."

Strand said she also objected to the School Board's granting Gray his retirement before the investigation is complete.

_ Staff writer Betty Jean Miller contributed to this report.