Stafford County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner will present recommendations for fixing the school division’s transportation issues at a School Board meeting in October.

The recommendations will be based on input from a committee comprising Kizner, bus drivers, school principals and representatives from the human resources and finance departments.

The School Board discussed transportation problems at its regular meeting Tuesday evening.

Earlier Tuesday, bus drivers and division administration held what one bus driver described as an “emergency” town hall meeting.

The meeting, which was attended by Kizner and the School Board chairperson and vice chairperson, was not open to the public, but Kizner said in an interview that the purpose was to start “a dialogue” about what is causing a bus driver shortage.

The school division is short 28 bus drivers, according to information given at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Because of the shortage, parents countywide have described instances of their children not being picked up in the morning, arriving at school late and being returned home late after bus rides more than an hour long.

Kizner said the mostly veteran bus drivers who attended the town hall meeting Tuesday morning shared many of their own frustrations, which include salary compression and discipline problems on the bus.

“The issues are not new,” he said. “One of them is that the current [salary] package needs to be changed. We need to honor those who have been loyal to Stafford.”

The School Board was to have voted Tuesday evening on one of four options to attract new bus drivers by raising the starting hourly rate from $15.76 to $17.34 and giving raises of either 3 percent, 4 percent or 5 percent to all other drivers.

On a motion by Sarah Chase, School Board vice chairperson and Falmouth District representative, and based on the request of bus drivers at the earlier meeting, this agenda item was moved to discussion instead of action.

Bus drivers said at the town hall meeting that they want to be part of the committee to come up “with a better solution,” Chase said.

At the board meeting, one bus driver, Laura Brewer, said that a current 11-year driver makes $17.48 an hour while a driver in their second year makes $17.15.

“I applaud your conscientious efforts to attract new drivers,” she said. “But based on examples given at the meeting earlier today, I hope you agree that increasing new driver pay alone is not going to solve the problem. Drivers and monitors are entitled to and deserve equal pay based on experience.”

In addition to salary compression, Kizner said in an interview that the bus drivers also described difficult working conditions that include a feeling of not being valued and respected.

“They expressed a lack of support from administration when there are discipline issues and from parents when a child misbehaves on the bus,” he said.

At the board meeting, Sherry Neal, a 20-year-bus driver, described the verbal abuse she has received from students on her bus. She cited vulgar language directed at her last week from a student when she asked him to move out of the aisle.

“This is the abuse that the bus drivers receive and that’s just a very mild form of it,” Neal said. “Part of the reason we cannot keep school bus drivers is because our children are out of control.”

“Sure, addressing the pay is wonderful, because everybody likes a nice pay check when they have to deal with something horrible, but there are more issues,” she continued. “Until we address much larger issues, nothing is going to change.”

At the board meeting, Kizner said he met Tuesday with the chiefs of elementary, middle and high schools to put in place immediately a policy stating that when bus drivers make discipline referrals, school principals will speak with bus drivers to “understand that decision.”

“That lack of communication has caused great frustration,” he said.

Kizner said he wants to see stronger consequences for misbehavior on the bus.

“When we have a kid that did what we heard, that kid to me should be off the bus for a very long time,” he said. “[Getting] a bus ride is a requirement until you lose a privilege, and you lose a privilege when you act that disgusting. And the parent has to come in and understand it.”

Kizner said he hopes parents are having conversations with their children about appropriate behavior on the bus.

“I wouldn’t mind having a community forum and discussion about a compact of responsibility,” he said.

Kizner said there are “so many” issues within transportation—from salary and student behavior to traffic and logistics—that he favors bringing in an outside consultant to take a system-wide look.

“I’m not a fan of consultants, but in this case I am,” he said. “Somebody with experience in large transportation models who can offer the board other ways to think about it.”

Aquia District representative Irene Hollerback said she still wants to see short-term solutions to the driver shortage. She suggested hiring private contractors to fill immediate driver vacancies.

Chase suggested that buses could start earlier in the morning to at least get students to school on time.

Board Chairperson and Rock Hill District representative Patricia Healy said the board should be looking at both short and long term solutions.

“If we can help address the short-term issue, which is having enough drivers to transport the students, then [we can address] the long-term issues of how are we going to fairly compensate our drivers as well as make sure they have a respectful working environment,” she said.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner:

540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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