TAMPA, Fla. – When more than 50 Hillsborough County school bus drivers at wits' end approached long-time community activist Henry Ballard for help, he knew something was wrong.
“They told me this was the worst they had ever been treated,” said Ballard, who held a long career in the school district and has a reputation in the community for helping people.
Unpaid hours and overcrowded buses – including as many as four students to a seat - as well as unfair and unequal treatment were a few of the many claims made by the group, which comprised mostly mothers working two to three jobs to make ends meet, Ballard said.
Shocked that the drivers showed up to meet him over the weekend, he first listened, then asked why they didn’t go to the school board or the superintendent. He realized most of them either had no time, were intimidated by the official channels of communication, or feared losing their jobs.
Perselphone Johnson was one of the drivers who spoke up about the plight of bus drivers in Hillsborough County. At the urging of Ballard, she and other drivers showed up to the school board meeting Tuesday evening to express concern.
“I’m just asking the board to please look and consider what we’re asking. Think about those bus drivers,” she said. “Because unless the buses are on the road to pick up these babies, how else can the kids get to school to have an education?”
Johnson made critiques about low pay, substandard working conditions and student safety.
Other drivers complained about not being paid for hours they spent working field trips.
Transportation director Jim Beekman said the system is not perfect and mistakes do happen, but his department works diligently to correct pay discrepancies when they happen. He said he has several meetings on Wednesday to help correct problems for some of the drivers.
But even the corrected pay doesn’t compensate for the low wages many drivers earn, even if they’ve served years in the district. “I greet the students everyday with a smile even though I'm hurting inside,” Johnson told school board members. "We don't know where our next meal will come from, to be honest."
Lack of assistance in disciplining unruly children was another concern. Even though they may not write up every behavioral incident, the drivers said the discipline referrals they do write often have no impact, leaving students to believe there are no consequences for bad behavior on the bus.
One driver even shared a story of young boys showing their friends ways to inappropriately touch young girls.
Drivers also questioned the district’s decision to change school start times for next school year. One major concern was for elementary school students, who would start at 7:40 a.m.
Earlier start times means young children would have to be at bus stops considerably earlier. Drivers say they already have problems seeing older children, and worry about younger ones, especially in low-income areas where parents might not be able to get them to their stops.
“They’re taking the elementary kids to come in early, 7:30,” said Johnson. “It’s hard for us at this time to even bring in high school kids due to the fact that it’s dark, due to the fact of these little babies, some of them don’t even have no kind of guidance coming to the bus stop.”
District spokesperson Grayson Kamm said the district is cognizant of the impact the earlier start times could have on young children and is looking into solutions such as additional crossing guards.
While the decision to change school start times will save the district more than $2 million, Kamm said it was based on improving attendance and preventing tardiness.
More than 12,000 students were late to school last year because of buses, but district officials did not say by how much.
Regarding other driver complaints, Kamm said it is not district policy for drivers to not be paid for their work. He also said drivers should not lose their jobs because of the change in schedules.
Any cuts will be made through attrition, not by eliminating current positions, he said.
After drivers gave comments to the board, board member Susan Valdes went out to the lobby area to speak with the group. She thanked them for coming forward and vowed to help.
“I cannot wait to see how board members will respond,” said Ballard.