Community tips scales for bus drivers

That yellow school bus pulling up at the end of the block is a sight most parents take for granted, but fuel costs very nearly became just one burden too many for drivers this year.

Less than three weeks before Labor Day, Indian River School Bus Drivers Association (IRSBDA) members finally renewed their annual contracts. While the drivers hadn’t out and out threatened a strike, they sent a clear message that their enthusiasm was dwindling.

According to IRSBDA President Ronna Cobb, “We renewed in support of the school board and the schools, and the parents.

“I can’t emphasize enough, how supportive the school board and the district (Indian River School District) have been,” Cobb added. “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think you would have seen us signing contracts this year.

“We didn’t want to leave them hanging, but we are by no means happy,” she continued. “And we’ll be knocking on legislators’ doors again in January.

“Yes, the state gave us an increase,” she said, referring to a $6.5 million supplemental allowance for fuel, approved in the state’s fiscal 2006 budget. “But that’s for the entire state of Delaware — it averages out to an extra $210 a month for each driver.”

Cobb said she appreciated what help they’d received from local legislators. Others, however, were less sanguine — Blaine Layton, a driver from Millsboro offered the General Assembly no more than the faintest praise.

“Out of the kindness of their heart, they gave us a little money,” he said. However, people were already complaining about gas prices last spring,” Layton added — now, it cost him $250 to fill the tank (and he had to fill it three times a month).

He recognized many parents had petitioned legislators on the bus drivers’ behalf, and thanked them. “A lot of them did call — and the budget hadn’t been passed at that point, but I think everything was already planned out and set aside.

“We just got started too late,” Layton suggested. “We didn’t get heard enough.”

The IRSBDA has retained legal counsel, and Cobb said they now had the option to strike, if that’s what they decided to do. However, she suggested that was the last option, and not what anyone wanted.

Aside from the likely disruption around the school district, drivers’ monthly payments on their buses wouldn’t stop coming just because they were on strike, she pointed out.

However, Cobb said they had serious issues with current formulas, especially as they related to base pay and fuel allowances, supplement notwithstanding.

“This is something that should have been addressed years ago,” Cobb emphasized. “I think many of the legislators weren’t aware of just how bad things were.” Now that some of the drivers were dipping into savings to keep their operations afloat, running losses, she said they could remain silent no longer.

Part of the problem in trying to build support, she said, was that most people looked at the job as a few-hours-a-day affair. But most people forgot that drivers had to wake up early to check for fog or snow delays, and had to stand ready all day, “on-call,” in case there was ever an unexpected early dismissal.

And with fuel cost of living increases on the rise, the situation was becoming increasingly untenable, financially, she said — the job had always brought in enough money to get by on, but now people were dipping into savings to keep their operations afloat, running losses.

“It’s always brought in enough money to get by on, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy doing it,” Cobb admitted. “But it’s getting to the point that drivers are asking themselves, ‘Is it worth the risk of losing everything to keep my bus on the road?’”