Tuesday morning a Pinellas County Schools bus driver let students off the bus ten blocks away from their destination at Lealman Innovation Academy; according to a press release from the St. Petersburg Police Department, the driver said she let the as many as 39 sixth through twelfth grade students off for safety reasons. One student was unaccounted for at first, but later found.
To get an idea of the safety and working conditions school bus drivers face and find out more about the monitors who assist drivers on school buses, WMNF News spoke with Curt Rock. He is executive director of the unions that represent school employees, including bus drivers, in Seminole County, north of Orlando.
“We’re in Florida; so, everybody that works in the public school system is underpaid, in Florida. With that being said, Seminole is probably one of the better counties in the state of Florida. Still, with that being said, many of our bus drivers and monitors at the lower end of the pay scale could go to McDonald’s and get paid more, especially if we continued to increase minimum wage.
“So, our goal, when we sit at the bargaining table, is to increase the hourly pay for all of our hourly people, including bus drivers and monitors.”
And monitors are adults that are paid by the school district to be on the bus at the same time, so in case there’s an incident the bus driver doesn’t have to deal with it. In your county, about what percentage of bus drivers have no monitor?
“Well, that depends on the student population, because our monitors are funded through special-ed, for the most part. So, they generally ride buses with students that have that written into their IEPs or they have concerns that warrant an adult to be on the bus. Yes, you’re right, some of our buses don’t have monitors because they don’t have special needs children on the bus or students of risk that need an adult on the bus with them.”
Do you think it would be safer in general or better working conditions in general or even better for the students if there were more monitors in the system and more buses that had monitors?
“I think behavior wise; any time you have an adult sitting on a bus with the students, that is an addition to the bus driver, it just gives you another set of eyes and spreads you out. You could have a monitor sitting towards the back, so the bus driver doesn’t have to keep an eye on that whole line of students and you divide up the responsibility. Very similar to a classroom where a classroom teacher, having a professional working in their classroom, with another set of eyes and another set of helping hands is much more productive and helpful and it spreads out the monitoring, than just having one person. The two are kind of equal in what that would be for a result.”
Well, we’ve talked specific things like pay and the monitors, but, in general, how would you describe the general working conditions for bus drivers?
“You know, our county is great to work with. The management staff is willing to meet with bus drivers and the monitors and the union, if we have concerns. They’re looking out for the best interests of the students and our bus drivers and monitors. The nice thing about our county is our folks that are in the management position; many of them have come up through the ranks and started as bus drivers or a monitors themselves, so they understand what our employees are going through, which I think says a lot with their ability then to problem solve with us because they understand what we’re talking about.”
By air time, nobody was available from SEIU; that’s the union representing Pinellas Schools bus drivers.
Update: Here’s the redacted 911 call from the bus driver, released by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department, in which she mentions a chemical smell in the bus.