Hurting school bus drivers, children

Stripping health benefits will jolt the system

By Garry Puetz

Gov. Nathan Deal says it’s not fair school bus drivers who work less than 30 hours a week receive State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP) coverage, when other state employees who work less than 30 hours per week do not.

But overly simplistic comparisons of positions or groups, utilizing only one factor, can lead to a shortsighted assessment, neither accurate nor effective.

In our opinion, the governor’s “solution” reflects that flaw. Equal does not necessarily mean fair. To be fair and effective, solutions need to be tailored to the specific, unique characteristics of the issue, with consideration towards the needs of the people being served.

Let us be clear. We value the hard work of every state employee, whether full-time or part-time. This issue is not, and never has been, about them.

It is about school bus drivers. Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said recently, “Traditionally, there’s been a unique relationship between school bus drivers and children.”

Why? Because at its core, the relationship is about protecting and teaching children, and the special commitment drivers have to support students and the education they receive. It’s about the relationship drivers develop with the children they serve twice a day. They listen, teach, support and most important, they protect.

School bus drivers protect and serve children.

If drivers are driven from the profession as a result of this recommendation being approved, how will we ensure every Georgia student receives access to quality learning opportunities? How will we be able to protect and support students during the entire educational process? Pupil transportation is an essential component in delivering quality learning in schools. It protects our students and ensures they arrive at school on time and ready to learn.

The most effective way pupil transportation providers deliver this vital service is to employ quality, professional school bus drivers. SHBP coverage is an important tool that allows us to recruit and retain employees willing and able to meet the demands of this position.

In surveys being conducted across the state, school system transportation directors are reporting that 20 to 100 percent of their bus drivers do not work 30 hours a week. School officials are concerned many drivers affected by this recommendation will be forced to consider leaving the profession if SHBP coverage is no longer available.

This coverage is the primary reason most school bus drivers decided to begin a career in pupil transportation. This benefit was approved 30 years ago by legislators who understood education is about more than just teachers and classrooms.

K-12 public education consists of valued team members. Each possesses unique expertise and skills. School bus drivers are necessary and important to that system. The loss of drivers as a result of this recommendation will put students at greater risk and diminish the effectiveness of the education system.

In fairness, we offer the following solution for anyone interested in becoming eligible for coverage in the SHBP:

Apply to your local school system. Allow the system to check your motor vehicle record, references and criminal background. Once you’ve completed an interview, physical examination and drug and alcohol testing, all you have to do is:

• Successfully complete the state Department of Education School Bus Driver Training Program, which includes classroom and “hands-on” training.

• Pass all written exams and your hands-on driving, loading and unloading evaluations.

• Pass all written and skills (driving) tests required for a commercial driving license.

• Learn to routinely operate a 38-foot, 25,000-pound commercial vehicle with 40 to 70 children riding behind you, at speeds up to 40 mph and in traffic.

• Demonstrate the ability to precisely execute loading and unloading requirements that protect students.

• Teach students critical safety behaviors that will help them protect themselves, on and off the school bus.

• Develop behavior management skills necessary to maintain a climate of safety, order and respect for students who ride the bus.

• Agree to submit to random drug and alcohol testing.

Fulfill these requirements, and we’re pretty sure the school system will arrange an ideal assignment for you. You’ll work independently and outside an office and enjoy the company of 60 to 150 children twice a day. You’ll begin your work day around 6 a.m. and end it around 5 p.m. You’ll travel the scenic roadways of Georgia. They’ll even throw in a company vehicle for you to use.

Oh by the way — as a Georgia school bus driver, you too will be eligible to receive SHBP coverage. We hope our Georgia legislators ensure those benefits continue into 2016 and beyond.

Garry Puetz is director of transportation for Forsyth County Schools and president of the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation.

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