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'We're trying to survive': Pasco County Schools bus drivers rally for better pay amid staff shortages

The current starting pay for bus drivers in the school district is $13.40. The district states it's in continued negotiations with drivers.

LAND O' LAKES, Fla. — School bus drivers in Pasco County took time to rally across the district office before going back to work.

"We just want to be able to live," said Lisa Coito, who has worked 36 years as a bus driver. "We're trying to survive."

Currently, the starting hourly pay for school bus drivers in the district sits at $13.40. Demand for pay varied across drivers, but they've expressed at least the same pay rate as neighboring school districts.

For instance this year, hourly pay for bus drivers at Hillsborough County Schools raised from $14.57 to $16.04. In Pinellas County Schools, the starting pay rate for a school bus driver is $15.69 an hour. 

Bus drivers that 10 Tampa Bay spoke with said some worry they'll have to quit amid longer hours with more routes and apply to other jobs that pay more. 

"That's sad because I love driving a bus. I always felt like it was something I was meant to do," said Kari Eilrich, a single mother, who has worked as a bus driver for 8 years. "It would be really sad if I had to hang my keys."

Pasco County Schools states it's in continued negotiations with the union. 

The school board voted to put a referendum on the ballot last week, which could also impact the possibility of a pay raise. 

"They've had a really hard year like many of our employees in the district," said Betsy Kuhn, assistant superintendent for support services at Pasco County Schools.

Kuhn said what's on the table at the moment is a 4 percent supplement for all employees, not just bus drivers. It would constitute a one-time payment. 

Bus drivers at the rally said they're not sure if they'll ever see a raise that meets their needs.

The school district is among many across the country facing bus driver staffing shortages. Starting this year, states were legally allowed to waive a portion of commercial driver’s license (CDL) skills test to address the labor shortage.

In an effort to curb the shortage, Pasco County Schools eliminated courtesy routes for the upcoming school year, affecting about 3,000 students.

The district has acknowledged concerns from the community. Bus drivers said they worry students who may need to talk will be an accident waiting to happen.

"It can happen anywhere. There could still be a sidewalk and they could still be in harms way," bus driver Lisa Rittgers said. 

She said her grandchildren will be among the students who will need to walk because of the route changes.

The school district has also reluctantly adjusted new bell schedules at the start of the year to give drivers more time to get kids to class on schedule with fewer routes.

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