Albemarle school buses

For only two weeks since 2010 has Albemarle County Public Schools been fully staffed with bus drivers.

The persistent shortage of drivers has limited the division’s ability to provide transportation for field trips and after-school tutoring and has led to increased ride times for students. To fix the problem, the division has proposed spending $645,550 to improve compensation and provide retirement benefits for drivers.

“The bottom line is that we have to solve this problem,” School Board member Kate Acuff said.

The bus driver compensation plan is one of the largest items in Superintendent Matt Haas’s $195.7 million funding request for Fiscal Year 2020. The School Board heard about the proposal and others Tuesday night during its third budget work session. Haas also detailed an incentive plan for retired teachers who want to substitute teach.

During the work sessions, board members have delved into the 20 new proposals in Haas’ funding request. They’ve signaled support for many of the proposed changes. The board will vote on the request next Tuesday.

“This document is very impressive and shows the work that’s gone on for months and months,” board Chairman Jonno Alcaro said at a Jan. 22 meeting.

Revenues are expected to be $195.3 million, a $1.6 million increase from the original funding request, leaving the division with a deficit of $411,574. The revenue increase is driven by rising property tax assessments in the county.

Transportation Director Jim Foley said he was expecting to be fully staffed at the start of this school year, but the department lost 13 drivers two weeks before school began. Currently, the department has 11 openings. The division employs about 170 drivers who drive a total of 14,000-plus miles a day, according to the funding request.

About $200,000 would go toward reclassifying the bus driver position to a higher pay grade. Under the plan, a driver currently making $13.22 per hour would make $14.19. The drivers also will be eligible for merit raises.

The plan would make bus drivers, who work six hours a day, eligible for retirement benefits. That piece would cost about $446,000.

Board member Steve Koleszar asked if that money would be better spent by raising salaries even more. Foley said the lack of retirement benefits has been cited as an issue among bus drivers.

For each new proposal, division staff outlined an implementation plan along with short-term and long-term goals.

The division is looking to have no driver vacancies by the end of the 2019-20 first semester and to cut the turnover rate in half.

Substitute teachers

Retired teachers who decide to substitute teach would earn $125 per day, $40 more than the current daily rate, under the proposal. The pay incentive is part of Haas’ revamped plan to improve the pool of potential substitute teachers.

This school year, one out of every five teaching vacancies was not filled. The division has had about 8,417 teacher absences this year, according to a presentation Tuesday.

Haas previously suggested requiring teachers who retire early to substitute teach 20 times a school year in order to receive health insurance. He later changed his mind and decided to propose paying licensed retired teachers more money.

A retiree also would receive $250 if they keep their license active and commit to substituting one day in their first six months of retirement.

The division also wants to keep current teachers in the classroom. Next school year, a group of teachers could earn a $500 bonus per semester if they don’t miss any school days. The other prong of the plan includes building a permanent group of substitute teachers. The whole proposal would cost about $108,000.

Haas said the bonus system will apply to teachers with 35 years of experience or more, which applies to about 45 teachers.

Board member Katrina Callsen questioned the incentive for teachers and what effect it would have. She said raising substitute pay seemed like the more logical place to start.

The division has raised the daily rate from $65 to $85 over the last three years, Haas said, but it still has grappled with a shortage of substitutes.

The topic of a bonus for teachers led to discussion of chronic absenteeism among teachers. In the 2015-16 school year, 32 percent of teachers missed 10 or more school days, according to a Daily Progress story.

Callsen said it’s unrealistic to expect teachers not to miss work.

“If they are hired, and they are told they have so many leave days, they should be entitled to use them if they want them,” she said.

Haas said the division needs better data about teacher absences.

“Right now, we don’t have a great leave system; it’s a paper system,” he said.

In July, the county is implementing a new time and leave system that should provide better information.

“Ninety-nine percent of our teachers work hard, and they deserve more pay, incentives and all those things,” Haas said. “… There are teachers who we need to work with, and we are working with them.”

Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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