Released bus drivers speak their minds

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three school bus drivers whose contracts have not been renewed for next year had five minutes each to address the school board at last week's meeting, though chairwoman Ann Tears pointed out, "This body does not employ you, therefore no action can be taken."

Rheba Walls told board members that she had perfect driving and attendance records, and more seniority than some who were still employed at the bus garage.

"Dr. Curtis, I think you should go back and evaluate your decisions and do what's fair and right for me and the other two drivers: renew our contracts," Walls concluded.

The second driver, Jennifer Noller, broke down in tears when she said, "The children on those buses don't take good to change," referring to the special needs children she has driven for almost 10 years. Noller said she has worked longer than any of the other three special education drivers. She described how new bus drivers were being trained right up to the last day of school and said, "Why hire them when you could have us?"

The third speaker was Larry Barlar, who was a driver for three years, until he got the non-renewal letter this spring.

Barlar has been a Tennessee licensed private investigator for the past 10 years, and was a policeman for 25 years before that. He told the board that he began driving a school bus for the health insurance benefits. Each board member was provided with a binder of supporting documentation for the statements he made. This included copies of his evaluations, with 23 out of 24 marks being "outstanding" and the remaining one "above average."

Barlar told the board about an incident in which bus driver, who is still employed by the school system, crashed into a car while driving a bus full of children. Barlar and mechanic Randy Lowe (whose contract was also not renewed) had notified their supervisor that this man appeared unfit to drive, but nothing was done. This same driver has a suit pending against him for injuries to a passenger that occurred when he was driving a van for the South Central Tennessee Development District. A copy of the suit, filed on March 25, 2009, was also included in the binder.

"As of now, all the bus drivers with complaints against them have been rehired for the 2009-2010 season, but I was not, and I do not have any accidents or driving complaints against me," Barlar said.

Barlar's personnel file, including all his medical information, and sensitive personal information such as names, addresses, and social security numbers of his wife and daughters, was released without his consent.

"They broke just about every law in the book," said Barlar, quoting an attorney.

"All four of the terminated Transportation Department employees, including myself, received better evaluation reports that those given Dr. Curtis by the board recently," Barlar pointed out.

"I've still got a lot of avenues I can go down," Barlar said, after the meeting when the motion to consider removing Curtis from office failed. "It's going to get very interesting."

The idea that the bus drivers were not re-hired because the transportation department was going to use the Edulog computer program this fall to consolidate routes, thus needing fewer buses, was dispelled by the next speaker at the meeting.

Jennifer Fincher has worked for the Edulog company for 20 years.

"You're not fully operational yet, but you're firmly on track. It's about a year, minimum, to get a system operational, and small districts take longer," Fincher said. "You're really moving along very nicely. It's almost a full-time job for someone to implement Edulog from scratch."

"Can it eliminate routes?" asked transportation committee chairman Curt Denton.

"Yes, it can," Fincher answered. "A lot depends on board policy, but Edulog can give you the information as to how routes can be consolidated and money saved."

"What percentage of your customers use zoning?" asked board member Craig Michael.

"The upper 90s in my territory," Fincher answered. "Zoning is a huge area of savings."

"The program was purchased to save money," Michael continued. "We couldn't gather information from other systems on cost savings."

"I would be glad to send it to you," Fincher answered.

"We've heard the word 'complex' when referring to Edulog," said Denton. "Is it complex for the user?"

"No," Fincher replied. "'Complex' refers to the multiple things Edulog can do. Once you're properly trained, it's not hard to use."

"Are most of your clients large school districts?" asked Denton.

"There's a lot of range," Fincher said. "We have a lot of small districts, though most of them do our ASP application, where the Edulog office hosts the software for the district. We have three levels of Application Service Provider, with a fee associated with each."