Bus contractors want more from legislators

By Lynn R. Parks

After learning that not all of the additional $6.5 million proposed by the state's Joint Finance Committee in next year's budget for school transportation will go to drivers, some bus contractors are threatening to hang up their keys. "I'm ready to park my bus, even if that means I never drive again," Harry Kitching told members of the newly-formed School Bus Association of Sussex County on June 8. Kitching drives a bus for the Indian River School District. "When all our savings are gone, how are we going to run our buses?" he asked. "Is the good fairy going to come along and help us?" About 120 members of the association gathered for its sixth meeting, held in the auditorium at Laurel High School. President Debbie Aaron, of Seaford who drives for the Laurel School District, cautioned drivers not to act in haste. "None of us are really happy with this proposal," she said. "But folks, it's a start." Public school bus contractors have been complaining since the fall that, with increased fuel, insurance and maintenance costs, they are not making money. They have had no substantial increase in pay since 1975, they say, and the self-employed contractors are being forced to borrow against life insurance policies and retirement accounts to keep going. "I hear these stories, and if they are true, I don't know of any business that would be in that situation and not think it was time to make some changes," state Sen. Robert Venables (D - Laurel) told the group. In May, the Joint Finance Committee proposed the additional $6.5 million for the upcoming fiscal year, a 10.5-percent increase over this year's budget. The increase includes about $1 million to pay for fuel and $1.5 million to cover a 6-percent increase in salaries. The state proposal will mean a $1,618 raise in the upcoming school year for Sussex County drivers with 30-mile or shorter bus routes; money based on additional miles would raise that to $2,374 for a 60-mile route. In addition to the 6-percent pay increase, the proposal includes a 5-percent increase to cover insurance costs and a 4-percent increase in driver's operating allowance. The money that contractors are paid to cover health insurance, unemployment insurance and worker's compensation insurance would increase 39.2 percent, from 17.46 percent to 24.3 percent, the current state rate. The proposal does not include a one-time payment to pay for diesel like the $432 payment that Sussex County contractors received in the 2004-2005 school year.
Contractors complained that about $1.3 million that was included in the proposal is not new, but was already included in the state budget. Money to pay for transportation for charter and choice school students and for students who go to alternative schools, for example, as well as money to compensate bus owners for depreciation on the vehicles were included in the proposal. Those total $1.3 million. The contract under which bus contractors are paid is more than 30 years old. Contractors say that the whole formula needs revamped, something that is not addressed in the Joint Finance Committee's recommendation. John Mitchell, transportation supervisor for the Indian River School District, said that when he asked his drivers if they would go to work on the first day of school Sept. 7 if this proposal is approved as part of the state budget, "the answer was no." "Do I believe that parking buses the first day of school will further your cause? No, I don't," cautioned Kevin Carson, superintendent of the Woodbridge School District. "I think continuing the conversation is what you need to do." Judy Powell, who drives buses for the Indian River School District, told members that she was excited when she read about the state's $6.5 million proposal. "I thought, 'This is what we started out hoping for,'" she said. "Then I got the letter saying where everything is going. We were thinking we were getting a $4,000 raise, then we find out it's not true." Venables, who has met with the contractors several times, said that he "pleaded" with other lawmakers to help the bus drivers, "so we don't have a lot of parents calling us saying, 'Our bus didn't come today.'" He added, "I felt pretty confident that they had taken care of it. But I'm really disappointed myself. They didn't listen." Mitchell told the bus drivers that they "are going to see money" under the state proposal, "just not enough." Powell and Aaron agreed that the association needs to continue working with the state on bus contractor's compensation. Association members voted at the end of the meeting to meet again before the close of the state's fiscal year, June 30. "We don't want not to drive," Powell said. "The kids are the future, and we are driving the future. Hopefully we will see that if we work with the state, the state will work with us."

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