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School bus driver's repeated violations raise questions about district policy

Published Sep. 21, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — Veteran school bus driver Mildred Rodgers was penalized two points by the Hernando County School District last week for driving her bus through a red light at the busy intersection of S Broad Street and Cortez Boulevard in Brooksville.

It was far from Rodgers' first infraction.

Since her hiring in 2001, Rodgers, 61, has accumulated 23 points for incidents that include causing six wrecks, speeding and improper passing — all while driving a bus.

Including citations for non-driving violations, such as repeatedly missing meetings, she has 17 disciplinary actions in her personnel file.

Yet, according to the district's Safe Driver Plan, Rodgers is still allowed to drive a bus.

And that, said School Board member Beth Narverud, means it's time to rethink the plan.

Rodgers' record would disqualify her from working at the Domino's Pizza franchise Narverud owns, she said.

"Domino's has really strict standards, and I think we should have really strict standards," she said. "We are delivering kids, not pizzas."

The district will review the Safe Driver Plan, unchanged since 2008, as part of a larger look at all of its policies — a review that started in May because the board realized that many of its rules might be outdated, said district spokeswoman Karen Jordan.

But the district has not decided whether to include provisions that might lead to the termination of drivers with long histories of violations.

Bill Hall, the district's manager of safety and security, said he and transportation director Ralph Leath had already recommended some changes to the policy, but only tweaks, such as altering the makeup of the committee that assigns points for violations. That's partly because the driving policies must meet state approval and vary little from county to county, he said.

Also, according to Hall, collisions that add points to a driver's record can be very minor, such as "hitting a basketball hoop or a minor backup accident."

Leath said there is no record of children being injured aboard Rodgers' buses. It was unclear, he said, whether any students were on her bus in May when a red-light camera caught her driving through the Brooksville intersection.

Based on the example of the Pasco County School District's Safe Driver Plan, these policies can differ and include harsher penalties for drivers who accumulate points over long periods of time. But even Pasco's plan would not necessarily keep Rodgers from driving.

Both plans assign points in a system similar to the state law that attaches points to driver's licenses for infractions. But, for bus drivers' school district records, points are assessed only for on-the-job incidents.

Driving under the influence of alcohol, for example, is a 10-point violation — and a fireable offense — in both districts, while improper backing is a two-point violation.

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But Hernando policy only allows the firing of drivers who accumulate 10 or more points over a 12-month-period and doesn't address points accumulated over longer time periods.

In Pasco, on the other hand, drivers may be fired if they accumulate more than 15 points in two years and 20 points in three years — neither of which Rodgers has done.

Barbara Campbell, transportation training coordinator for the Pasco schools, said that though plans must be approved by the state, each district is responsible for creating its own policy.

And Pasco, she said, is considering making changes that would apply to drivers with histories of repeated incidents.

The committee that reviewed Rodgers' red-light infraction recommended that she be suspended without pay for three days because, along with four points she received in January for speeding and improper passing, it brought her one-year total to more than five points.

Rodgers, who declined to comment for this story, can appeal this recommendation. In 2011, she served a 10-day suspension "for accumulating 5 points within a 12-month period and for repeated offenses of not showing up for work," Jordan wrote in an email.

The representative of the union that represents bus drivers — the Hernando United School Workers — also declined to comment, and School Board Chairman Matt Foreman said he didn't want to talk about changing the policy until he knew more about the role of the state and the union in setting it.

Board member Gus Guadagnino also said he didn't know the specifics of Rodgers' circumstances. But, "based on what you're telling me it sounds like we need to look at whether the accumulation of points (over an extended period) needs to be addressed," he said.

"Our children's safety should come first, and if this needs to be addressed it should be."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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