It was open-mike day at a Columbia County bus drivers meeting Monday, and they had plenty to say about bus safety, the way they are paid and the conditions they are working under.
"Our concern is not so much the rate of pay or how much we're payed per hour, but there is a time that is left out here," driver Don Stephens said. "We're paid from the time we pick up the first child until the time we drop off the last child. For many of us, there is 40 minutes when we are driving that bus and not getting paid."
But Columbia County schools Assistant Superintendent Charles Nagle said most people don't get paid for the time they are driving to and from work.
Columbia County school board members and school officials attended the monthly transportation department meeting, which was the first time they have met with bus drivers since some appeared before the board Jan. 23 with talks of unionizing.
"Just because things don't go your way doesn't mean it fell on deaf ears," Mr. Nagle said "I can tell you - whether you like it or not - that we are transporting more children more efficiently, effectively and in a more timely manner than we have at any other time in the past."
On Jan. 9, kindergartner Aleana Johnson died after being run over by her school bus.
"The thing that's bothered me the most are the statements that changes made this year somehow had an effect on what happened," said Columbia County school Superintendent Tommy Price, referring to the double-track bus scheduling system.
Putting an end to the double-track system was one of the four demands outlined in a Jan. 26 letter to the board from the Teamsters Local 528. The letter asked that drivers be paid from the time they turn the key on until they park their buses, and that they receive regular training and have available substitutes when they are sick. Drivers also want bus monitors to make sure children get on and off the bus safely.
Transportation Director Shirley Doolittle invited bus drivers to discuss their concerns.
"Now is the time for us to make positive changes for our department," Mrs. Doolittle said. "It's a time for good, constructive criticism. It's a time to move forward and make it happen."
But the meeting did not sit well with the drivers who have been leaders in the effort to unionize.
"I thought we were being scolded for bringing things to their attention in as drastic manner as we did," said Pam Sullivent, the bus driver who first contacted the union.
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.