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Bus driver's seats unfilled

Pinellas schools may be 100 drivers short. It's a tough sell because of pay and discipline.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 29, 2007


LARGO - For more than an hour, the former school bus driver shared his experiences with the 12 student drivers gathered in the portable classroom.

He told them about the broken window, the six fights and the stabbing he dealt with in his first six weeks on the road. He instructed them to keep their eyes and ears open at all times. And he warned them never to let the kids get the upper hand.

"You can't be a buddy to them," said George Francey, a safety and training specialist for the Pinellas County School District's transportation department. "If you're buddy-buddy with them, who's in charge of the bus?"

Transportation officials hope all 12 student drivers will come to work for the district when their training class ends in three weeks. But even if they do, there still won't be enough drivers when school opens Aug. 21.

"We really won't have a good total until they come to bid on the routes," said Rick McBride, manager of transportation services. "But we'll probably be 75 to 100 drivers short."

The shortage comes despite an anticipated enrollment drop of 2,000 students for the coming year. And while the district expects as much as a $16-million reduction in transportation costs once a new student assignment plan is implemented in 2008, the need for 800 drivers to transport 46,000 children at a cost of $46-million will continue for the next year, McBride said.

If the shortage remains, he said, drivers will have to double up on routes. That means some buses could run as much as half an hour late, both in delivering children to school and bringing them home.

The bus driver shortage in Pinellas is nothing new. In fact, the district normally is understaffed by about 100 drivers, said Bill Angelus, chief steward for the bus drivers union.

Angelus blames the chronic shortage on low pay and the fact that most drivers work only three-quarters of the year.

"We're basically unemployed but we can't collect unemployment," he said. "A young person with children can't live on a 9 1/2- month income."

Beginning drivers in Pinellas make just under $11 an hour. Veteran drivers like Angelus, 65, who has worked for the district for 15 years, can make $13.46 an hour. Drivers work three or four hours in the morning and three or four in the afternoon, with about two hours of unpaid time in between. By contrast, the starting salary for Hillsborough County school bus drivers is $9.85 per hour, according to the district transportation department.

And then there's the issue of student discipline.

"You have to be a certain type of individual to put up with the children," Angelus said. "I know someone who quit on the first day."

Early in their 40 hours of training, potential drivers accompany a driver on an actual route with a busload of children, said T. Mark Hagewood, the district's transportation director.

"It may not be for them," Hagewood said. "It's not for everyone."

Carl Berginc Jr., a former tour bus driver who is in training for a job with the district, said he was surprised at the scope of a school bus driver's responsibilities in caring for children.

"We're like their mother, their father, their nurse and their psychiatrist," said Berginc, 71. "We even have a cleanup kit on board in case they get sick."

Berginc thinks he has what it takes to be a good driver, but acknowledges "there's a question mark over a lot of this."

"If it's as harrowing as they say it is, I don't know if I'll continue with it," he said. "But I'm going to try."

Fast Facts:

Route info coming

On Monday, the Pinellas school district will begin mailing postcards with bus route assignments. Parents may call the district call center, (727) 587-2020, from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and ask to speak to a transportation customer service representative.