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Bus drivers bend the boss' ear

In a wide-ranging session, the superintendent says his office will work for change with input from the drivers.

Published March 11, 2005

[Times photos: Cherie Diez]
Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox listens as he meets with school bus drivers Thursday at the High Point bus depot to discuss their concerns in the wake of two school bus-related student deaths. Wilcox said the district is committed to instituting a number of changes to improve the transportation system.

Pinellas school bus driver Linda Huber makes a point about bus route times not being realistic on her route to superintendent Clayton Wilcox in the break room Thursday at the High Point bus compound in Clearwater. "I'm glad he came, and we'll see if there's any real changes," Huber said.

CLEARWATER - They chug through Pinellas traffic, often enduring raucous behavior in the seats behind them. They watch in disgust as motorists blow past their flashing red lights and stop arms.

While top officials refer to their passengers as society's "precious cargo," the county's 800 school bus drivers earn less than people who drive garbage trucks.

Now, in the wake of two student deaths in bus-related accidents, they are under siege from parents and the public.

"There's probably no harder job that we have in this school district right now," Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox told more than 100 drivers Wednesday in a meeting to brief them about changes and listen to their concerns.

No job, he said, is "under more of a microscope."

Presented with the rare opportunity to sound off, the drivers did not hold back. They spoke of principals who refuse to discipline misbehaving students, inaccurate routing instructions that cause problems on the street, an office culture that discourages complaints, and a bureaucracy that dampens any impulse toward improvement.

Drivers also complained of new pressure from parents who confront them during their routes, emboldened by the public outrage that followed the recent traffic deaths of students Rebecca McKinney and Brooke Ingoldsby.

One driver recounted how a parent jumped out of a car, knocked on his bus' door and told him he was speeding. Many of his colleagues said they could tell similar stories.

"If people are following your bus, I've got to tell you that's another whole set of issues that we've got to talk about. And I believe that's happening," Wilcox said. "We simply can't have that because it does create an unsafe situation. . . . Sooner or later, somebody's going to try to cut you off and they're going to have a collision with a 60,000-pound bus."

Wilcox said he senses the stepped-up scrutiny in his own office. While some parents call with legitimate complaints, he said, others "call and e-mail me on a daily basis about little things. Little things, like the bus pulled out into traffic. Well, how else are you going to pull out?"

Throughout the one-hour meeting at the High Point bus compound in Clearwater, drivers joked with Wilcox, applauded many of his answers and thanked him for coming. The superintendent said he would return in a few weeks with answers to their questions and solutions to some of their problems.

He said he will do the same at the district's five other bus compounds.

Wilcox already has addressed some driver concerns by reorganizing the transportation department.

Among the planned changes: putting drivers in closer contact with supervisors, opening a call center to field parent concerns and adding employees to audit the system for unsafe practices and dangerous bus stops. Many existing supervisors will have to reapply for their jobs, and Wilcox will take a personal role in some of the new hiring.

He also promised to upgrade conditions at the High Point compound, a temporary facility dotted with portable buildings and poor restrooms.

"We're not going to be here forever but at the same time I don't think it's right to have you working in conditions that are less than what I would work in," he said.

Also on the way is new technology that would put school phone numbers and students' home information at drivers' fingertips so they don't have to rely on dispatchers, Wilcox said.

In addition, he said, the district will combine the department's global positioning system with a new system that allows officials to call the home of every student with timely recorded messages. The combined system will detect when a bus is running late or early and automatically alert parents.

Many of the improvements discussed Wednesday might have altered the sequence of events that led to the deaths of McKinney and Ingoldsby. Both girls were dropped off at stops that required them to cross busy roads, in violation of a 2-year-old district directive. Computer problems and the department's chronic inability to resolve complaints contributed to both accidents.

"I pray for him, I really do, because he came into a ball of fire," five-year driver Katrina Peterson said of Wilcox. "He came into a mess that's been going on for years."

Said another driver, Linda Huber: "I'm glad he came, and we'll see if there's any real changes."

Wilcox had no solutions for one problem. Asked why drivers couldn't be paid more, he said there was only so much money to go around, but he would work on it.

"I hear what you're saying but there's not a group of folks in this district that don't think they need to be paid more," he told the drivers. "That said, there are some new dynamics and so we'll see what happens."

Pinellas school bus drivers start at $11.29 an hour and can earn a maximum of $16.42 an hour with experience. Sanitation drivers in St. Petersburg and Clearwater start at higher rates and can earn up to about $20 an hour.

"I hope that what you see is that, in this process, we have not blamed bus drivers," Wilcox said. "We've got to trust the talent in this room to fix this."

[Last modified March 11, 2005, 01:39:29]

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