April 10, 2013

Murray school board to begin bus talks

Drivers worried about losing benefits

By Christopher Smith
christophersmith@daltoncitizen.com

— Murray County school board members plan to hear proposals for outsourcing employees of the school system’s bus line at their Monday meeting, said board member Jackie Rogers.

Board members are considering handing over the management of bus drivers to one of three private companies to find savings for the cash-strapped school system. The companies are First Student, Durham School Services and Student Transportation of America.

According to the proposal, most drivers would be guaranteed one year of employment with the new company, while drivers who have worked more than 10 years would be kept on the school system payroll and benefits program.

“I’m not leaning either way on a decision,” Rogers said. “I’m looking at what is best for the county and the students and schools. I’m open for one way or another. After the April meeting, (the public) will have a better idea of where the board is leaning.”

A decision won’t come until the May 13 board meeting to allow board members time to consider their positions, several school officials said. Board member Frank Adams said the board is likely to privatize if “there are significant savings” found.

School board meetings are at the central office at 1006 Green Road in Chatsworth at 6 p.m.

At the heart of the discussion is the cost of benefits. Several drivers said they’re concerned about losing benefits if board members vote to privatize because they will be considered part-time employees who don’t qualify.

“By nature, all drivers are already part-time employees,” said Danny Dunn, human resources director for the school system. “I don’t think we have a single driver that works more than 15 hours a week. We’re paying part-time people full-time benefits right now.”

Anita Brown of First Student, who supervises Dalton Public Schools’ bus line, said most companies still offer benefits to part-time employees.

“There’s health, vision, dental, life and they can also opt into a 401(k),” she said. “That’s to all drivers and monitors and part-time staff. Health care is changing for everyone right now, but I don’t see any major changes to ours at this time. Costs will probably go up for all companies.”

Dunn agrees.

“The budget situation in Georgia and Murray County — as it is in Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools and the nation — is that everyone is feeling the budget crunch,” he said. “You have to make some changes to make ends meet.”

Because bus drivers are school system employees their benefits are mandated by the state Department of Education. The most recent cost estimate for benefits for the school system’s 68 drivers and 10 bus monitors is more than $700,000, said Dunn. That includes health insurance, life insurance, a 403(b) retirement plan that acts similarly to a 401(k), Social Security and worker’s compensation.

Dunn said benefits are a big part of the $2.4 million a year it takes to run the school buses, including salaries for drivers and monitors that costs another $700,000 a year.

Where does the remaining $1 million go?

“That comes from fuel,” Dunn said. “We pay for a huge amount of diesel fuel. Also we have four mechanics, clerical persons and two supervisors. ... We’re looking at the best deal for our employees, the school system, the taxpayers and our students. We’re out to do the best we can for everyone, but you can’t do everything for everyone.”