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Concerns over pay and retention leading to Sumter school bus drivers recently skipping routes to protest are in some aspects statewide issues, officials say.
Dorothy Walters and Patricia Robertson, both veteran bus drivers for Sumter School District, were among 25-30 district drivers who attended Monday's school board of trustees' monthly meeting at the district office on Wilson Hall Road. They implored for higher pay and cited a cycle of low salaries and ability to keep bus drivers long-term that then causes those who remain to do extra routes.
The two were among six members of the public who spoke on the topic during the meeting's public participation period.
Both said most district drivers have second jobs to make ends meet, and driving the extra routes daily can make them late for those other positions.
A district driver with no experience starts out at $10.19 per hour, according to the district's salary schedule. In the first five years with the district, wages increase annually between 17 and 20 cents per hour. Drivers are paid on a nine-month salary schedule for days worked transporting children to and from school.
About 15 drivers held out of work for a week earlier this month, rallying for increased pay. Walters said they returned to work on Nov. 13 because most drivers couldn't afford to hold out any longer without making money because they are paid by the hour.
In her 31st year as a bus driver in Sumter County, Walters said her typical driving day has increased this school year from 5.5 to 6.5 hours on average. That makes her late for her second job at a local assisted-living facility. Walters said she makes $15.36 per hour as a driver.
In recent years, she said, extra daily routes have increased because the district has had difficulties retaining drivers.
"People come in and they get the training, but they don't stay," Walters said, "because once they see what the salary is, we can't retain any drivers. That's one of the biggest problems we have."
Walters said the direct competition the district faces for drivers is with the private-sector trucking industry.
Efforts by The Sumter Item to obtain the number of bus drivers currently on the district's payroll compared to recent years were unsuccessful. Shelley Galloway, spokeswoman for the school district, did say the district currently has only seven substitute drivers who are available to do daily routes when a driver is out sick or doesn't report to work.
FOOD-SERVICE WORKERS ALSO SPEAK
In addition to the bus drivers, about 45 district food-service workers also attended the board meeting with concerns about their pay.
According to law enforcement, many arrived at the meeting close to the 6 p.m. start time and had to stand in the lobby because the board room had no more seats.
Lori Werner, kitchen manager at Alice Drive Elementary School, said food-service workers in Sumter haven't received a pay increase since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
Because bus drivers were speaking out on pay at the meeting, Werner said her group felt it was an appropriate time for them to also air their concerns.
She and other kitchen managers said some cafeteria workers in the district start at minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, and many leave for better-paying jobs.
Similar to last week at a board Finance Committee meeting, district officials said Monday that it can't raise anyone's salary right now due to the district's financial challenges.
In her monthly financial report to the board, District Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Miller reiterated the district is currently operating within a state-ordered multi-year financial recovery plan that dates back to May 2018.
"That plan submitted to the state Department [of Education] is not just a one-year plan. It's actually a three-year plan," Miller said. "So, based on where we told them our budget would fall for the next three years, they approved our plan and allowed us to go forward. But, right now, the state department is fiscally responsible for Sumter School District."
She said any changes to that financial recovery plan must go through the state.
The district does project its fund balance at the end of fiscal 2019 to be $14.3 million, Miller said, but other factors limiting the district are a state requirement to have one month's worth of operating expenditures in its fund balance and that the district is projecting a budgeted deficit of about $540,000 for the current fiscal year.
Board members seemed concerned Monday about the drivers' and food-service workers' stated issues.
"Our bus drivers are of value to us," Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty told The Sumter Item on Wednesday, "and we do not take their concerns lightly."
He said district administration is working diligently to ensure there is equity in the drivers' pay scale because some discrepancies were found in meetings with drivers last week. The district is also looking at other possible ways to enhance its relationship with drivers, Canty said.
A STATE-WIDE PROBLEM
According to the state Department of Education, bus driver shortages are currently a "big issue" across the state.
Ryan Brown, chief communications officer with the department, said the agency is asking in next year's budget from the state legislature for an additional $3.6 million for bus driver salary increases.
The state currently funds all districts $7.85 per hour in starting pay for drivers with no experience, according to state data. The additional money would fund a 4% pay increase, moving that allotment per starting driver up 31 cents per hour to $8.16/hour, Brown said.
As drivers gain more experience, the state funds districts a gradual level of increased pay, according to data. Districts then pay drivers on top of that allotment, he said.
"If we get the request, it would be a 4% increase across all the different levels," Brown said.
He also added a growing state economy contributes to the current bus driver shortage.
"With the economy doing as well as it is, and we have major ports in the state and companies across the state expanding," Brown said. "If someone has a commercial driver's license, those companies will pay $40,000 to $50,000 a year to drive a semi-truck, and it's the same training and requirements as it is to drive a school bus. The hours are longer in the private sector, but it's a chunk more of money. It's a trend you see that goes up and down with the economy."
Comparing bus driver pay in the greater region isn't necessarily a straight-forward comparison because some districts cover drivers' training costs, physicals and other fees while others do not.
Fees' coverage can vary, and all those factors weigh into a driver's pay, research shows.
According to Galloway, the district's spokeswoman, Sumter provides a four-day training class for new drivers, but drivers are responsible for paying for their own physical and CDL certification. The Sumter Item was unable to obtain all the various fees covered by neighboring districts for precise comparisons.
If looking strictly at starting wages for a driver with no experience, Sumter pays a wage of $10.19 per hour. Kershaw County, Lee County, Clarendon School District 2 in Manning and Clarendon School District 3 in Turbeville all pay higher starting wages, and their annual pay schedules are higher except for Clarendon 3. Sumter's pay schedule does go above that district once a driver has one year of experience. Data for Clarendon School District 1 in Summerton was not obtained.
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