One after another, Citrus County's most experienced school bus drivers told the School Board how much they enjoy their work. But, they added, don't ask us to do more of it without more pay.
After hours of discussion, the board agreed late Tuesday to pay more to drivers who will be handling more than one bus route when school opens next month.
The board also agreed to begin a compensation study for bus drivers and all other non-teaching and non-administrative employees that would look at the fairness of the existing salary formulas.
And the board asked Superintendent James Hughes to explain the existence of what some are calling a "secret file" where a bus supervisor kept track of complaints against drivers.
The new bus routes were set up to equalize last year's route system, make it more efficient and allow the separation of middle and high school students on the buses.
Under the plan, the number of routes would be reduced by 22, but 25 drivers of the district's roughly 190 would be asked to run a second route each day without extra pay.
Bus driver pay is based on the number of miles driven, and those who drive up to 49 miles each day would be paid 33 percent of a set base salary. That base grows with a driver's seniority, and the percentage grows as the routes stretch longer than 49 miles.
The routes were equalized by the administration to compensate for drivers whose routes may have gotten shorter over the years while the drivers were still paid the same amount.
But those who were being asked to do double runs said asking them to do the extra routes for no additional money wasn't fair.
"We may just be peons, . . . but we need your support. Please don't take away our money," 18-year bus driver Emily Cook told the board.
Other bus drivers complained that a second route would affect their second jobs.
Still others argued that being a bus driver requires much more work than just driving. They must attend training, keep up with a variety of paperwork and clean their buses.
"Repeatedly we're told we do a good job," said 19-year driver Linda DeBusk. "Then compensate us for what we do."
Driver Betsy Hart urged the board to remove all appearance of favoritism toward certain drivers. "We'd like to see fair and equal treatment across the board for all drivers," she said.
Board member Ruthann Derrico pushed to have the bus routes selected on the basis of seniority, but the rest of the board rejected that idea after transportation supervisor Alice Rowland assured them that seniority is one of the most important elements in making route assignments.
Instead, the board voted unanimously to pay bus drivers extra for the double run, using the same formula used to calculate extra pay that drivers earn for making school-to-school runs or field trip runs.
Later in the meeting, board members Sheila Whitelaw and Janet Herndon tried to find even more money for the drivers, but the move was not supported by the rest of the board.
Administrators estimated that the increased pay would run the district about $125,000 more than planned, cutting the overall savings from the new transportation routing system to about $175,000 for the coming year.
After hearing from fired and then rehired bus driver Lydia Rao and her husband, Michael, about the treatment she received from the district, Derrico also asked Superintendent Hughes about the "secret" personnel file kept on Mrs. Rao.
The file included a log of complaints and problems that a supervisor of Mrs. Rao's had with her performance, but Mrs. Rao was not aware of its contents, and the log was not in any official personnel file she had at the district.
Hughes said the board needs to hear the whole story on the file, and he promised a report back at a future board meeting.
Code of conduct
The board also approved the Student Code of Conduct without arguing about whether paddling students should remain as a disciplinary option.
Derrico, who has fought to outlaw corporal punishment for the past dozen years, asked other board members if they had changed their minds on the issue. None had.
Previously, Herndon was the only board member to side with Derrico on the issue, and the remaining three members of the board said they stood by their previous decision.
The approval of the Code of Conduct also means the board has approved a dress code, including a new standard on how short shorts can be. Previously, shorts reaching midthigh were acceptable, but now the code says they must be at least to the lower thigh. That also applies to skirts.
For the first time, the code also delineates that shorts, pants and skirts must fall at the "natural waistline."
Politics in school
Whitelaw wanted to send a reminder to administrators on the district's policy of not participating in political campaigning on school time.
When Whitelaw raised the issue, Hughes pointed out that he had told his administrators earlier in the year to be especially careful about that. And recently, since complaints have reached him that some political discussions are going on, he issued a memo again reminding school employees of the policy.