By Sarah Vogelsong
A group of bus drivers spoke out against their current pay scale at the June 9 School Board meeting, a complaint that sparked heated debate among board members and briefly seemed to endanger the board’s approval of the 2014–15 school operating budget.
Deanna Calhoun, a resident of Woodford and a county school bus driver, presented several complaints on behalf of her fellow bus and car drivers concerning pay and benefits.
“We all know that we’ve been on a pay freeze,” she said. “But what we want you to be aware of is that new drivers are being hired and coming in and making more money than current drivers with more years of experience. This is not right. … Do we need to quit and come back and get rehired at the correct grade of pay scale that we should be?”
Calhoun reported that she had called around to comparable surrounding counties for information on their pay scales.
Caroline, she said, offers bus drivers a taxed starting pay of $10.38 an hour for an annual salary of $7,823.16, compared to $11.38 per hour in King George County, $12.94 per hour in Middlesex County and $14 per hour in Louisa County. Essex County reported an annual starting bus driver salary of $14,016 and King William a salary of $15,609.
Furthermore, Calhoun reported, other counties offer their drivers participation in the Virginia Retirement System and help with health insurance, benefits not enjoyed by Caroline County drivers. According to Calhoun, full-time employees in Caroline must pay $50 per month and part-time employees $316.29 per month toward health insurance.
“This is outrageous for us,” she said. “I’ve heard over the years several drivers say through the county they don’t even bring home a paycheck because the health insurance takes it all. Some of them even said they’ve owed the county money because of health insurance.”
Bus driver Robert Ellis also spoke out against the continued lack of step increases for drivers.
“I’ve talked to bus drivers that say they’ve been driving 15 and 16 years and have never had a step increase,” he told the board.
It was when approval of the 2014–15 school operating budget came before the board that the meeting got messy. The School Board was required to approve this budget so that it could be passed along to the Board of Supervisors for approval at their June 10 meeting, the last such meeting that will be held before the July 1 start of the fiscal year. Without passage of the budget, the School Board would be unable to pay its bills or issue teacher contracts for the upcoming year.
Under the current school operating budget presented by director of budget and finance Lifen Zhou, support staff are slated to receive a one-step pay increase of 2.5 percent.
Port Royal district representative Tinka Harris objected, reminding Zhou that at the board’s special May 28 meeting, she had requested that all support staff’s pay be increased by 4 percent.
“The reality is that our budget is so tight that . . . the number just doesn’t work out,” said Zhou.
“We’re going to have to find something else to cut, then,” said Harris. “I’m not going to settle for anything less than 4.”
To prolonged applause from the audience, Harris motioned that the budget not be passed until the board could figure out a way to increase bus drivers’ and other support staff’s pay by at least 4 percent.
The board quickly split on the issue of how to proceed, with one side arguing on behalf of approving the budget with an amendment specifying that cuts would be made to achieve a 4 percent pay increase for support staff, and the other side arguing that the budget should be approved as is and then amended later.
Superintendent Gregory Killough “strongly encourage(d)” the board to follow the second course, reminding members that they had spent six to eight months crafting the budget before them.
“I’m not saying that you can’t make an amendment, I’m saying that it’s highly odd to do that at this moment,” said Killough.
A flurry of votes followed. Five members of the School Board initially voted in favor of approving the budget with the amendment, with Reedy Church district representative Mack Wright voting against, but the matter still proved unsettled and the atmosphere grew increasingly tense.
“What we’ve done now is to make a quagmire that’s not going to work with the Board of Supervisors,” Wright said.
Amid a restive audience, Supervisor of Transportation James Satterwhite assumed the podium to state that because of the irregularities in pay, “a 4 percent across the board is not going to give us what we need.”
“Drivers, you all need to give us a chance,” he said. “Let us massage (the numbers).”
Killough weighed in: “When you start doing these quick fixes, it just makes the problem harder to find and harder to correct. …. A plan (needs) to be developed with the School Board and the Board of Supervisors to address it and not just look at a 2.5 or a 4 percent increase but to address it realistically to make it competitive and to address years of service.”
In a split 4-2 vote, with Harris and Mattaponi district representative Nancy Carson voting against, the board rescinded its previous motion, and two more motions were put forward. The first, by Wright, would present the $37.9 million budget as a lump sum to the Board of Supervisors for their approval. Presenting the budget in this way allows the School Board to move money around within the budget instead of being tied to particular line items.
The second, put forth by Madison district representative Shawn Kelley, would direct the superintendent to come to the School Board’s June 24 meeting with a plan to fix the pay scale for support staff and bring it in line with the missing pay steps.
The School Board unanimously approved both motions. Later that evening, it also approved an increase in the employer match for bus drivers’ retirement plans from $12 to $15.
Tuesday night, the Board of Supervisors pulled the vote on 2014-15 school budget appropriations from their consent agenda because the state budget hasn’t been finalized. The supervisors plan to vote at a June 24 work session.