NEW KENT – School bus drivers in New Kent County are concerned about losing their jobs to outsourcing and/or a loss of health benefits.
Although the two issues are unrelated, school bus drivers rallied together Monday night to plead with the New Kent County School Board to reconsider taking any action this budget season that might force them to leave their positions.
"Taking away the drivers' benefits will force many of us to seek other employment," said New Kent bus driver Nancy Gorthright. "Many students will lose their drivers that they trust to provide safe travels to and from school."
"We love our children and we take care of our children."
According to many of the bus drivers, they were told about the possibility of losing their health benefits a few weeks ago by the school division's transportation department.
Others heard that the School Board had been asked by the Board of Supervisors to complete a feasibility study, which could lead to outsourcing the drivers.
School staff are concerned that the bus drivers are blending the two unrelated issues.
"One has nothing to do with the other, and any School Board decisions on either will be made separately during the budget process," said School Superintendent Dr. Robert "Rick" Richardson, Jr. in an email Tuesday.
Richardson explained that the School Board is waiting to learn more about the national Affordable Care ACT (ACA) and Virginia Retirement System (VRS)-driven benefit modifications, which could force part-time employees to enroll in government-approved healthcare.
Though the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014-2015 draft budget has not been presented to the School Board, there are currently no plans to eliminate anyone's benefits, Richardson said.
The feasibility study, requested by the Board of Supervisors last spring, was compiled and completed between June and late October. It was then submitted to the prospective vendor for their analysis and findings.
According to Richardson, the results were presented to administration in December and will be formally presented to the School Board on Feb. 18, as a part of the general budget discussion.
Drivers would not automatically lose their jobs if the schools outsource, said Richardson. The vendor could choose to keep the drivers.
"The School Board has yet to make any decisions. The final budget is not scheduled to be adopted until late March," Richardson said.
Though the School Board hasn't made any decisions, the bus drivers urged the board to look closely at the budget.
"We cannot let money dictate what happens to the safety of these children," said bus driver Tansle Ferrell.
"Please reconsider the budget. Take the money from somewhere else and keep our family together," echoed fellow driver Susan Salayi.
The bus driving "family," Ferrell said, includes community members that are small business owners, retired firefighters, military veterans, church leaders, and volunteers, with 468 years of experiencing driving in the county.
"We do our best to arrive on time every time in a safe manner," Ferrell said. "The well-being of our children is our highest priority."
According to Ferrell, bus drivers do a lot for their "children" on their own time, including:
•Talking to shy and quiet students who seem alone to remind them that someone cares.
•Taking kindergarteners on a tour of the buses, so they won't be scared on the first day of school.
•Calling new students to tell them who they are going to sit next to on the bus.
•Calling the parents if a pet has been hit or found in the middle of the road, so they can remove it before the child gets home.
•Calling neighbors when their animals are loose.
"We are usually the first and last school representatives the students see," Ferrell said.
Frances Cogbill, a parent of a New Kent student, also spoke in favor of keeping the school bus drivers, who have become her "vocal advocates" for her autistic son.
"My son is non-verbal and he has no words to speak for himself," Cogbill said. "I depend not only on the teachers, but also his bus drivers and their aides, to be his eyes and ears."
Cogbill added that routine is essential to treating his condition, and that riding the bus has become one of his favorite times.
"He laughs and dances in his seat. He always meets the bus with an energetic and enthusiastic smile," she said. "Please do not put that in the hands of a stranger."
Though the bus drivers found out about the possible benefit cuts in late December, Richardson explained that the board is relaying information as it becomes available.
"We are doing the best we can to share information as we learn it," said Richardson. "I don't want you to labor under the misimpression that there's information that we've had and that we've just held."
Richardson also impressed upon the drivers that they are well respected in the school system.
"All of what you said here tonight is not a surprise to any one of us here at this table," Richardson said. "We enjoy the finest transportation program in the Commonwealth of Virginia, second to none, as far as I'm concerned."
Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.