Zena Alhilly received the email late on March 31 letting her know that, come fall, her children no longer will have bus transportation to their Pasco County middle school.
The school district announced it plans to eliminate all “courtesy” bus rides, which the state does not fund, to students living within two miles of their middle and high schools. A bus driver shortage prompted the change, affecting some 3,000 students.
Safety was chief on Alhilly’s mind.
“We live on State Route 54. It has six lanes and a 50 mph speed limit, not mentioning the rush hours mornings and during school dismissal,” she said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “I go to work before school starts and come back home after. Dad can drop off in the morning but can’t pick up. It’s not ok for us to have our child cross 54 at any time, and not willing to have anyone else to do so.”
She was not the only one to raise concerns.
“Some of the feedback has been that people understand we have to do everything we can to be more efficient,” said assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn, who is overseeing the effort to cope with the driver shortage. “But for the most part, it’s been negative.”
Many people contended that pay is the problem.
Pasco pays its bus drivers $12.23 per hour for up to 15 days of training, and has a starting wage of $13.40 per hour. It is negotiating an increase.
Neighboring Pinellas County schools paid $15.19 per hour until approving a 3.25 percent raise in September, and Hillsborough County schools increased driver salaries to $16.04 an hour, up from $14.57 earlier in the year.
“This ALL could be resolved LITERALLY by raising pay a few dollars for new AND existing drivers/staff,” Pasco driver Jeff Stone said in an email to the Times. “Instead we avoid the obvious and greatly impact kids, families, teachers with these ridiculous bell time and route changes.”
School Board members said they want to boost the pay rate for drivers. Kuhn said she’s been advocating for more money, too, but argued that won’t be a solution.
“There are districts out there that pay a lot more than we do, and they have the same problem,” Kuhn said.
Pinellas officials said they had 36 bus driver vacancies on Monday, nine fewer than they had on the first day of classes. Hillsborough reported having 160 driver openings, 10 more than when school resumed in August.
Some parents were dubious about Pasco’s latest plan, given the lackluster results of its effort to stem late-running buses after the first semester.
In January, the School Board approved moving to four school start times instead of three, reasoning that fewer bus drivers could handle the load.
While some of the areas that had troubles with students arriving late for classes daily saw improvements, other regions that didn’t struggle early in the year wound up with more delays than before.
“How do they think cutting the buses will help if they were so sure the first solution they came up with would fix the problem?” parent Devi Shoba told the Times via Facebook Messenger.
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Board members said they are hearing the parents’ frustrations, many of which they share.
“I’m very concerned about students crossing (U.S. Highway) 41″ to get to Land O’Lakes High School, “especially when young, inexperienced drivers are driving through that area at the same time,” said board member Colleen Beaudoin, who lives in the neighborhood.
Other spots raising worries include Bayonet Point Middle, where students would cross Little Road, and Fivay High School, where students would cross State Road 52.
Beaudoin said she had informed the superintendent’s staff of her hesitation. The administration is not asking the board to approve bus routes, though, just as it has not in past years.
The discussions arise at a time when the School Board is preparing to consider asking voters for a special property tax for schools, in part to boost pay for employees, including bus drivers. The board has scheduled a workshop on a possible referendum for Tuesday morning.
Parent Alicia Zilay said she hoped the district would come up with a workable solution in time for the next school year.
“Since the four-tier system started in January, I get an automated call every afternoon at 2:30 pm letting me know my daughter’s bus will be 25-35 minutes late,” Zilay said via Messenger. “We have been carpooling with another family, and are hoping that next year we will return to a regular start time ... and our kids can ride the bus without chronic delays.”
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