Bus driver session draws dissent

Several Richmond County school bus drivers attended a Transportation Council meeting Thursday, at which driver absenteeism, tardiness and route delays were again discussed.

In the meeting, which was followed by a somewhat contentious exchange between a few drivers and school officials, interim schools Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley reported that the latest figures show 17 to 20 drivers out of 160 are absent on a given day, many because of illness.

Tardiness also was addressed, but Mr. Wiley said those numbers have improved lately. Such issues also were discussed in the council's November meeting, with some saying route delays have resulted when drivers did not show, forcing substitute drivers to take over routes with which they are not familiar.

School board member Alex Howard had previously asked whether Global Positioning System devices on buses could be programmed to give substitute drivers route instructions.

At Thursday's meeting, Mr. Howard was told that the current technology in buses doesn't allow that function but that the system is considering buying about 20 GPS units that could provide route directions.

Mr. Wiley also spoke about a hot line that drivers are to call if they're going to be tardy or absent. Bus drivers have said that when they call at 5:30 a.m., as instructed, there often isn't anyone there to answer. Mr. Wiley said in the past that occurred because the person assigned to answer the phones was busy with other duties. He said that a person is now answering the hot line early and that drivers are encouraged to call then, allowing the department to more quickly cover routes and prevent delays.

Sallie Thomas, a bus driver and council member, suggested at Thursday's meeting that the system consider hiring someone to focus on making bus routes more efficient. In an impromptu news conference after the meeting, Superintendent Dana Bedden said the idea isn't a bad one but that funding is a challenge.

Immediately after Thursday's meeting, some current and former bus drivers made their case to school officials, and emotions ran high. Several drivers said that they feel they don't get the respect they deserve and that they face retaliation if they speak out.

"We're just saying give us a better working environment," said council member and driver Caroneta Williams as she wiped away a tear. "...The issue is we need solutions.."

She said school board President Marion Barnes had said after Thursday's meeting that drivers could quit their jobs. Mr. Barnes later said he made the statement in response to a comment by former bus driver and former council member L.A. Green, who said some bus drivers wouldn't return after the holidays.

Dr. Bedden later said he doesn't punish workers for speaking out.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or preston.sparks@augustachroncle.com.