Pasco bus drivers demand better pay as negotiations continue with school district

Pasco School bus drivers held a rally outside district headquarters on Land O' Lakes Boulevard Friday, demanding better pay as negotiations between their union and district leaders continued.

Starting salary for Pasco school bus drivers is currently $13.40 an hour, which is among the lowest in the state. United School Employees of Pasco and district representatives have been trying to hammer out a new contract for months and drivers say they've waited long enough.

"It shows that finally we're all standing up together," said Ashley Casper, who has driven buses in Pasco for six years. "Everybody is in the same boat right now. We're all hurting. This district is hurting. This district is hurting the most out of any other district in the state of Florida."

Casper said she feels the pain of every day and so do others, including retirees who took jobs as bus drivers to earn a supplemental income. The drivers who demonstrated said they're devoted to their jobs and don't want to quit.

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"I can't afford my home. I had to send my kids away because I can't afford to keep a roof over their head," Casper said. "I could go to another county where I could make more, but we're dedicated to our kids. We're loyal to our kids, and it's not fair to them if we all leave just for better pay."

"Some of these guys are working 10, 11, 12 hours a day and that's not safe, number one. That's not what they've signed up for," added Robert Albertson, who has been driving buses for four years after retiring.

Betsy Kuhn, assistant superintendent for Support Services, said the district is offering drivers a four percent supplement on top of their current salary. The salary scale is expected to undergo a major shift across the state during the next school year when a new state law takes effect, requiring minimum salaries for all public school staff to be raised to $15 an hour.

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"That's why we want to start negotiating for next year as soon as possible," Kuhn said. "We as a district certainly want them to make more money. We're seeing the hard work that they're doing every day and that's for all of district employees."

The drivers said the low pay has contributed to a driver shortage, which led to students being chronically late to school. Earlier this year, the district overhauled the entire bell schedule to try to fix the issue, but drivers said it's still a struggle.

"We have buses that are more over-crowded. We have drivers that are running sometimes six routes in one day," said Casper. "It's not fair for what we're making. There are a lot of drivers that have been here over 15-20 years that are still making less than $15.50 an hour."

Pasco Schools is also asking the county commission to add a referendum to the August primary ballot, asking voters for a one millage increase for teacher and bus driver salaries. If passed, it would increase property taxes based on the price of people's homes.

Hillsborough Schools voted to put a similar referendum on the August ballot as well.