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With the first day of school a month away, the fact that DOE had not yet approved the district's list of bus drivers had the board deeply concerned for a good segment of the July 10 meeting. DOE had approved the driver training but not the actual hiring, a lack that left the board nonplussed as to what the holdup was.
“Wow...we don't have any more hoops left to jump through,” noted school board member Bill Brumfield.
The PAEC bus driver training is scheduled for July 25, still with no guarantee of a job, with school starting three weeks later, August 14. Yet without the required training, the bus drivers would be out of compliance with continued training requirements.
“That doesn't make any sense,” said Brumfield.
“Of course not,” School Board Superintendent Marianne Arbulu agreed, and, judging from subsequent conversations between Arbulu and DOE officials, which she related to the board, that seemed par for the course for DOE, whose actions, or lack thereof, she described as “illogical,” at one point.
School Board Member Shirley Washington protested that the district's drivers, many of them longtime district employees, still had to go through all that with their jobs in limbo, and for “peanut money” to boot, having had no raise in the last decade or so. Furthermore, the DOE's measures thus far seemed downright punitive, coming from state board officials who seemed all too willing to believe the absolute worst about the district. “Somebody needs to be more vocal with DOE,” she said. “These are our children.”
Arbulu reiterated her numerous phone calls to DOE officials, but stated that she wasn't really sure the district's concerns were even being heard.
Transportation Director Freddie Hightower, who is using his last days of accumulated leave and vacation at the end of his retirement to be allowed to help out (as is Mr. Willie Carr) explained that DOE had made several mistakes when they audited the district's transportation documents, including mistaking the actual dates drivers had taken required physicals, for the expiration dates of the same. They also did not provide Jefferson with an exit report, which Hightower could have used to correct the deficiencies the previous week - the team seemed all too eager to rush back to Tallahassee with their findings. Furthermore, the state auditing team was made up of retired educators and new-hires; when Mrs. Pat Jones, a transportation expert with the Wakulla School District (where Jefferson's finances have been outsourced, per DOE), looked over the reports, she spotted the state team's mistakes right away.
“They (the state) realized they weren't as expert in transportation as they thought,” he said.
Additionally, there were DMV mistakes on one of the drivers' credentials, which were corrected by having the DMV fax over documentation. There were still some deficiencies on Jefferson's part, mostly concerned with documentation, which Hightower stated had been corrected or were being corrected.
The buses, however, were another story. Somerset wants 15 buses on the road when school starts, and while they had been periodically inspected every 20 days as required, none had gone through the thorough summer end-to-end mechanical inspection, because the district currently had no mechanic and DOE had not approved hiring one to fill that vacant slot. Many were also waiting for new tires and seat covers to arrive.
In what Arbulu described as a “big fire drill,” the district has coordinated with three other school districts, Leon, Gadsden and Wakulla, to send out four buses to each one to have these annual inspections and any needed repairs done. Then, when these 12 are completed, Jefferson will send out the the final three, one to each district, in order to have the fleet ready for August 14.
There was some welcome news. Arbulu pointed out the final balance of about $650,000, in both assigned and unassigned funds, resulting from the work of an entire team of Jefferson County financial people that had since been phased out by DOE. Randy Beach, of the Wakulla County Schools District's financial team, confirmed the amount, saying that the district’s financial emergency condition no longer existed.
Finally, the board voted to tentatively approve the list of bus drivers, pending the state’s blessing, so that everything would be ready to go when that blessing finally came.
Also, since they finally had the funds available, the board agreed to give the bus drivers a long overdue raise.