By Elise Franco
More than 50 Austintown School District bus drivers and supporters attended Monday’s board meeting to express displeasure at the recent elimination of drivers’ health-care benefits.
The board approved a resolution at its April meeting to cut hours for 41 bus drivers from four hours to 31/2 hours per day, which means they no longer will be eligible for health care through the school district after June 30.
Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said previously that bus drivers’ routes now take them about 3,000 miles per day, but a new, two-tiered busing system will bring that down to 2,000 miles per day and cut each driver’s hours by a half-hour.
During the April meeting, several drivers asked to speak after the time for public comment had passed but were denied permission. Those drivers, along with parents and students came back to say their piece.
Scott Williams, an Austintown Fitch student, said he was angry with the board for refusing to allow a driver to ask a question at the end of the April meeting, then refusing to answer her question when she asked it anyway.
Peggy Smith, a former bus driver, said she was disappointed in the board’s decision to cut drivers’ benefits.
“A leader listens to the people they lead, so what excludes you from listening to us?” Smith asked the board. “This decision [to cut benefits] has changed people’s lives. ... We come bearing questions, and you won’t answer them.”
Board President Dr. Tom Stellers told those in attendance the issues raised during public comment would be addressed by the board, though he didn’t indicate when.
After the meeting, Stellers said the board realizes why the drivers are upset and reiterated that the cuts were made to help solve a $2 million budget deficit.
“I understand why they’re concerned,” he said. “We’ve possibly changed some people’s lives, but that wasn’t our goal.”
Fred Marcum, an Austintown resident and parent, said his concern was with the schools’ not informing him of busing delays over the past several weeks.
“I’m disappointed not to know when my child is going to show up at night,” he said. “I pay taxes to know.”
Stellers said many drivers are taking necessary medical leave now before losing their benefits in June, leaving the bus garage understaffed at times.
“Some have called in with serious illnesses and have doctors’ excuses through the end of the year,” Stellers said. “And it’s nearly impossible to get part-time drivers.”
Bus driver Pam Giudici addressed parents with an apology that she said school officials should have made.
“We would like to extend our heartfelt apology to the families of Austintown for any inconvenience or stress that’s occurred in transporting your children ... in recent weeks,” she said. “It has become imperative that we manage our families’ as well as our own medical needs before June 30.”
Giudici said the drivers remain committed to providing safe transportation to all Austintown students despite their current situation.