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Economics, not rhetoric, drives school bus situation

If there's a worse, more thankless job in education than driving a school bus, I'd like to know what it is.

Teachers, cafeteria workers, guidance counselors and many others can make strong cases for being unappreciated by the public and their bosses. That's the state of education in America today, I suppose.

But by my reckoning, bus drivers should either get medals or have their heads examined.

Imagine being at the wheel of one of these mammoth vehicles, trying to navigate Citrus County's highways and side streets at dawn and during the afternoon busy time on the roads, while our legendary bad drivers alternately buzz around you or crawl in front of you.

You need your head on a swivel as you watch the traffic and keep an eye on 60 to 70 screaming maniacs behind you, some of whom are pounding each other or throwing things out the windows at passing drivers.

You also get to meet many parents, typically as they storm the bus to yell at you for having the audacity to tell little Johnny to stop whomping the girl in front of him with his 50-pound backpack.

Arrive late at a bus stop, and expect to be chewed out by some mom in a housecoat and slippers. Arrive late at a school, and you get the glares from the staff for disrupting the schedule.

All of this fun and a paycheck so modest that you qualify for monthly blocks of government cheese. And you can only get this job after putting out your own money up front to take a commercial driver's license course, to get fingerprinted and to take a drug test.

Gee, where do I sign up?

It's no surprise that the district is having trouble getting drivers. There are 155 buses running 304 routes in Citrus, and barely enough drivers to go around. The district has 18 substitute drivers, but they are filling in on four open routes, filling in for four drivers on workers' comp and seven who have been off for two weeks or more.

Last week, district transportation officials went to the the School Board to plead for relief and offered an interesting idea: a $100 bonus for drivers who have perfect attendance for 45 straight school days.

I'd call it combat pay, but that's probably not politically correct.

The proposal raised some philosophical issues, always dangerous for a board that's been having a lot of trouble lately with deep thoughts.

The argument against the incentives basically is this: Why should people be rewarded for doing what they have been hired to do?

In a dream world, that point would have merit. But this is where some board members and others need to be introduced to reality.

The district is facing a real problem in getting and retaining bus drivers. Either you make it worth their while, or they'll find work elsewhere. Then, who will drive the buses? Board members Patience Nave and Pat Deutschman, who raised the most fuss against the bonuses?

The district also has a teacher shortage and is looking for ways to lure new hires. More money, always a good motivator, tops the list of ideas.

Last year, declining student attendance was a big problem. While the board talked, the business community (which understands the real world) stepped up, offering money and new cars as prizes for kids with perfect attendance. Students shouldn't need such bribery, the board fussed, but guess what? Attendance is up.

This is how the real world works. Hospitals can't find enough nurses, so they offer recruiting bonuses. Computer wizards are offered stock options and other perks to join companies. The county is considering raising the amount of money volunteer firefighters get per call because there is a shortage of these essential workers.

I'm certain the paymasters are all grumbling. After all, shouldn't people be grateful just to have a job?

Reality, though, says that if you need someone to do an essential job, sometimes you have to sweeten the pot. In the case of a school bus driver, there's not a whole lot the board can do about improving working conditions (extra cushions on the seat? ear plugs? a whip and chair to help handle the rowdy kids?)

Even in the strange world that some members of our School Board inhabit, the golden rule of business applies: Money talks.

Maybe they should listen.